Siachen glacier — strategic options to demilitarise

The immense loss of precious lives and high material cost with a not so high strategic stakes is a good reason for the Indian government to consider withdrawing from Siachen

The recent death of 9 Indian soldiers due to an avalanche on the Siachen glacier made headlines. According to initial reports, the tally was 10 killed but on February 9, the miraculous survival of a soldier brought some solace. This tragedy has once again brought to fore, the high human cost and not so high utility of presence of the Indian army. This is not the first time that this issue is being debated. In 2012, when Pakistan army lost more than a 100 soldiers in a similar natural tragedy, the then Pak army chief General Kayani had made a similar suggestion. More than 2000 soldiers have died on both sides so far. This is not taking into account the permanent disability suffered due to frostbite, and several other high altitude related ailments.

The eyeball-to-eyeball position of troops of India-Pakistan is a legacy of partition. In 1949, when UN declared ceasefire, Pakistan had occupied about one-third of Kashmir and called it Azad Kashmir(India refers to it as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). The ceasefire line was demarcated up to a point called NJ 9842. Beyond NJ 9842, the documents signed by both the sides had the phrase ‘thence north’ to glaciers for the line of control (post Simla agreement in 1972, the ceasefire line was called the LoC). This phrase became the bone of contention. The Indian army occupied the Saltoro Ridge in a daring operation in April 1984 when there were intelligence reports of the Pak army’s moves to occupy the same. Pak army swiftly moved on the opposite side. The two sides have been static ever since with the weather taking a much heavier human toll than actual combat.

Demilitarisation of Siachen was first mooted in Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister. Pavan Nair, an ex-army veteran, in a well researched article on the subject questions the strategic value of maintaing troops there. True, Pakistan ceded Shaksgam valley to China in 1963. The hawks will always contend that Pakistan will play mischief along with China. To get troops into Nubra, Pakistan army would have to climb to about 24,000 feet and drop down to travel along the glacier — a logistical nightmare by any stretch of imagination. To reach the same place, alternately it could use the flatter approach through Shyok valley. In fact, the Indian army did plan to use this approach during ‘Exercise Brasstacks’ in 1987.

The answer to argument ‘What if” Pakistan occupies is to invest in high technology drones and position the troops at such a location where advance warning can pre-empt any such action. A rapid reaction force in Shyok/Nubra valley can effectively deter such a misadventure. Withdrawal will need tremendous political will on both the sides. The most difficult stakeholder to please will be the security establishment. Inder Gill, a well respected General of the Indian army, had this to say in an Op-ed that appeared in The Hindu in 1997:”The amounts of money wasted by both sides is very large indeed. There is nowhere that either side can go in this terrain…We have no strategic-tactical advantage. Nor can Pakistan. We must withdraw immediately and unilaterally and save wastage of money.” The general did not mention human cost—which is of course priceless.

Guru Aiyar is a Research Scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar

Featured Image: Nubra Valley by rv, licensed from creativecommons.org

 

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