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Unseen thaw in Pak army thinking

June 11, 2012 09:10 IST

India goes into Monday's Siachen talks with its army's hardline position in Islamabad, but if it makes some effort to probe attitudes over there, it might be surprised, says Jyoti Malhotra

India may have already ruled out a breakthrough in the Siachen dispute with Pakistan when the two defence secretaries meet on Monday, but the fact remains that both sides will take serious judgement calls on the progress of the bilateral relationship that could have a serious bearing on a possible visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan later this year.

Significantly, for the first time since 1992, when India and Pakistan nearly agreed to disengage, authenticate their respective ground positions and withdraw troops from their eyeball-to-eyeball locations on the Siachen glacier, the Pakistani army and Dr Singh seem nearly on the same page.

As far back as 2005 while on a visit to Siachen base camp, Dr Singh had announced the best thing the two countries could do was to stop the ecological destruction of the glacier on which troops from both countries had been stationed since 1984, and convert it into a "mountain of peace".

His UPA government has never formally disowned that statement, although Defence Mminister A K Antony, briefing journalists last week after the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the line for Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma's talks in Islamabad, insisted it was impossible to expect a "dramatic announcement or decision on an issue which is very important for us, especially in the context of (our) national security".

In fact, it is the Indian army, speaking through officials on the condition of anonymity, that has considerably hardened its position, certainly since the near-breakthrough in 1992 and more so since the Kargil conflict in 1999.

Then and now

According to defence ministry sources, Sharma will tell his Pakistani counterpart during the 13th round of the Siachen talks over the next two days that Pakistan must not only 'authenticate' troop positions of both armies on the Saltoro ridge of the Siachen glacier, but follow with a proper 'delineation' of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the map as well as on the ground, which in turn should lead to a 'demarcation' of the border.

Only then, the sources said, would India consider disengaging and redeploying its troops from the heights of the Saltoro ridge of the glacier on which Indian troops have been stationed since 1984.

This position by the Indian army is much more hardline than the positions it took in 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto were prime ministers and a deal on Siachen was almost said to have been done, or in 1992, when then defence secretary and current Jammu & Kashmir governor N N Vohra nearly broke through the Siachen deadlock.

Of course, the Indian army argues the Kargil invasion in 1999 had changed the entire discourse and vindicated its position that the Pak army is not to be trusted.

In 1989 and in 1992, the Indian army's insistence that the Pak army authenticate its ground positions, both current and those it would relocate to, included one significant compromise. Which was that the authentication of positions would not be put into the main document but in the annexures to the main document.

The latter would only contain a reference to the annexure, delineating the positions on a two-grid reference. The Pak army conceded this was a major face-saving device, especially since it had always held that the Indian army, by racing to the Saltoro ridge in 1984, had violated the Shimla agreement.

If it agreed to authenticate the Indian army's positions, Pak army officials said, it would be accepting those transgressions.

Clearly, no Pak army nor government leadership would be able to survive if it were seen to be acknowledging that it was sanctioning the heights on which Indian troops were stationed.

On the other hand, after the Indian army evicted soldiers of the 6 Northern Light Infantry at Kargil, it began to get much more powerful, with the result that the earlier compromise offer of authentication in the annexures was not repeated.

That is why the Indian army's newest three-step negotiating position with the Pak side on Monday-- to authenticate, delineate and demarcate -- is doomed to fail from the start. The Pak army believes itself responsible for Pakistan's security, especially vis-a-vis India, and will never negotiate from a starting position of weakness.

Islamabad shift

But conversations with several Pak military analysts here over the past few days, on the margins of a conference organised by the Islamabad-based think-tank, Jinnah Institute, and the Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, indicate there could be some space between the extreme positions adopted by the two countries.

The conversations were held on the condition of anonymity, considering the sensitive nature of the subject.

According to the first analyst, Paki chief of army staff Gen Ashfaq Kayani's invitation to the Islamabad-based correspondent of The Hindu newspaper in early May, to travel with him to Gyari in the Siachen glacier, the site of a major snowslide in April in which 139 soldiers and civilians lost their lives, is more significant than has been acknowledged in Delhi so far.

Considering the correspondent, who cannot even travel to Rawalpindi (a mere 25 km from her house in Islamabad) without permission, but shared breathing space with Kayani -- and even a briefing, admittedly with three other Pak journalists, by the cream of the army officer corps -- certainly means the army is sending some sort of a message that it wants to seriously talk to New Delhi.

The Pak military analysts Business Standard spoke to were unwilling to threadbare analyse the meaning of Kayani's gesture, but pointed to two distinct changes taking place in their army, the first related to terrorism and the second to India.

The first change broadly refers to the fact that the Pakistan army is privately willing to acknowledge its role in the creation of terrorists, both against India and the US in Afghanistan.

It is beginning to realise that the monster of terrorism it helped create is seriously biting back and, as one military analyst said, "The Pakistani army continues to be a predator, but it seems to be beginning to realise that it needs India's help in eliminating this monster."

According to a second analyst, "India's successful economic reform and, conversely in Pakistan, the mistaken identification of the Pakistani army as the state, which has given rise to skewed economic processes, means the Pakistani army is looking to at least partially withdraw from some strategies of politics and governance that are the natural domain of the state."

None of this means the Pak army is ready to give up its primary role in Pakistan's polity, the analysts insisted, but it does mean the army could be willing to at least consider the fact that India is no longer its chief enemy.

Certainly, Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma is not going armed to Pakistan with a solution to the Siachen conflict, especially as India believes Siachen must be a part of several other confidence-building measures that both countries must put in place before final solutions are achieved.

But, if Sharma is willing to look beyond the obvious and probe beneath the surface in his conversations with his counterpart, as well as with Pak army officials, he just might be surprised on what he comes up with.
Jyoti Malhotra in Islamabad