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Why a breakthrough on Siachen is unlikely

June 11, 2012 16:41 IST

With both India and Pakistan sticking to their respective rigid stances, the two-day defence secretary level talks are unlikely to see any breakthrough, reports Amir Mir from Islamabad

While Defence Minister AK Antony has already cautioned against expecting a breakthrough in the Siachen talks which have begun in Islamabad between the defence secretaries of the nuclear-armed neighbours, the Pakistani side is set seek the immediate demilitarisation of the world's highest battlefield besides a troop pullback to the 1984 positions.

The two-day India-Pakistan talks are taking place amid calls by Pakistan to seek a settlement on the icy heights after an avalanche buried 140 people, including 129 soldiers and 11 civilians on April 7 at the Giari sector. This will be the 13th round of such talks since the conflict first began.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani had talked of demilitarisation of the Siachen Glacier, adding that there should be a peaceful resolution of the issue, which had kindled hopes that a negotiated settlement to demilitarise the area might be on the anvil. However, Antony played down the hype by suggesting to the Indian media that no major breakthrough was expected in the upcoming talks on the Siachen dispute.

Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma will be leading the India delegation at talks with Pakistan authorities. According to the foreign office circles in Islamabad, the Pakistani side had handed over a 'non-paper' to India envisaging a clear roadmap for the long-standing problem during the last round of talks held in New Delhi last year.

Now, the Pakistani side is expecting to hear India's response during Islamabad talks. As per the proposal, Pakistan wants India to pull back troops to the 1984 positions while India wants Pakistan to authenticate the 110-kilometre actual ground position line along the Siachen Glacier and the Saltoro Ridge in Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistani officials are of the view that India fears a troop pullback would set a troubling precedent and put pressure on New Delhi to resolve the festering dispute of Jammu Kashmir.

The Siachen conflict began in 1984 when Indian forces launched a successful operation to force Pakistani troops to retreat west of the Saltoro Ridge. Since then, the two countries have fought intermittently in the region, only to agree on a ceasefire in 2003. Over 2,000 troops have died from both sides, a majority of them due to the harsh weather rather than combat. The agreement on Siachen was almost reached in 1989 between then Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her Indian counterpart Rajiv Gandhi.

However, it was widely believed that the final deal could not be sealed due to opposition by the Indian Army. The two sides again came close to striking an agreement on Siachen and Sir Creek during General Pervez Musharraf's regime but political upheaval in Pakistan prevented the historic breakthrough.

In the aftermath of the Gayari tragedy, Gen Kayani had suggested on May 5 more confidence-building measures between Pakistan and India to settle the Siachen dispute amicably by demilitarising Siachen. He referred to a peaceful resolution of the issue for the third time in a month but pointed out that there had been a regression in the talks after India shifted its goalposts.

He said the two countries were close to a resolution in 1989 by agreeing to authenticate [ground positions] in the northern most point of the LoC (technically known as NJ 9842). However, India has changed the phraseology by asking for demarcation of the Line of Control at the last defence secretary-level talks on Siachen. He re-emphasised that he was all for a peaceful resolution but short of that, "we will do what we are supposed to do" -- fighting, that is.

However, on the heels of the Siachen talks between India and Pakistan, Antony cautioned against expecting a breakthrough in the Siachen Glacier talks, saying, "Don't expect dramatic announcement or decision there on an issue which is very important for us, especially in the context of national security." He did not spell out India's proposed stand at the Monday-Tuesday talks but it was obvious that Antony was apparently referring to India's demand for a proper authentication of current troop positions in Siachen by both the countries.

"Our stand is there and the defence secretary will explain the stand there," Antony said. He stressed that India has a clear-cut position on the Siachen issue. "They (defence secretaries of both the sides) are going to have the discussion there. But we have already discussed this in detail. We have very clear-cut position, since discussions are going to take place, I don't want to reply it here," he added.

The defence minister's comments clearly dampened the hope offered by Pakistan's High Commissioner Shahid Malik who was quoted by the Indian media as saying a day earlier that both countries would benefit from demilitarisation in the world's highest battlefield. Going by media reports, India's cabinet committee on security has decided to stay with the country's known position on the authentication of troops. India sees it as the first step towards the ultimate objective of demilitarisation.

India wants Pakistan to agree to authenticate the troop positions and demarcate the Actual Ground Position Line on the map before taking steps to demilitarise the Siachen. However, Pakistan has refused to do so.

Pakistani English daily The News has suggested resolution of the Siachen conflict in a recent editorial in these words: 'What the Siachen conflict needs for its resolution is for the civilian and military leaderships of both countries to demonstrate political will and give up on their fossilised positions. A push by the Indian political side is the need of the hour to override the opposition of its army, while the Pakistani side also needs to think of creative ways of untying the Siachen knot.

'If the statements of leaders on either side are to be believed, Siachen is a war neither side wants to fight. Yet, it has lasted for almost three decades now, a mix of bad politics and bad cartography making the conflict almost insoluble. So as both countries focus on boosting their trickle of trade, they must not push tougher territorial issues, including Siachen, lower down on the agenda. This problem can end -- but only if Pakistan and India want it to'.

Amir Mir in Islamabad