Delving deeper into Siachen

Siachen dispute tells us a lot about the state of India-Pakistan relations

The Siachen Glacier is not economically productive in the present time. India is not really spending a lot of money in keeping its troops there. The money spent on troop deployment on the Glacier is nothing when compared with the average corruption scandal in India. It is a very small fraction of India’s total military expenditure and an extremely small fraction of its GDP. Pakistan on the other hand spends more, (as a fraction of its GDP) than India in maintaining the troops in the Saltoro range.

Looking at the number of Indian troops dying on the Glacier, it can be said that it is not as bad as it used to be. In the early 1980s, the Indian Army was inexperienced and many costly mistakes were made. In those days the casualties were a few hundred soldiers a year. Over the last two decades, the Army learned from its mistakes and became better informed about glaciated warfare. Today fewer mistakes are made so casualties are around 10 per year now. For comparison the Indian Army posts a few hundred casualties a year in its various COIN operations – a number that is comparable to what NATO suffers in Afghanistan.

Looking at the Pakistani troops dying on the Glacier, it can be noted that Pakistan has no troops on the Siachen Glacier itself — that is in India’s control. Pakistan deploys troops on the lower altitudes of the Saltoro Ridge line, and the actual numbers are less when compared to India’s troops in the region. Barring this year — where Pakistani casualties are much higher than India’s – Pakistani casualties are lower than India’s casualties. If the number of casualties is weighted to the complexity of their tasks (number of posts, altitude of post, etc.) on the Glacier and the number of troops deployed, Pakistani casualties are proportionally higher than those of India. I feel this speaks to the Indian Army’s qualitative superiority over its adversary on the Glacier.

The strategic value of the Siachen Glacier conflict – or more correctly the Saltoro War, is about India teaching Pakistan to respect boundaries. Since 1947 Pakistan has displayed a complete disdain for any kind of boundary in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan unfortunately sees the 1949 CFL (Cease Fire Line) agreement and the 1972 Simla Agreement as fancy toilet paper. Pakistani national ethos simply sees a “boundary” as being a line across which to indulge in military adventurism. Unfortunately it falls to India to iron out these terrible kinks in the Pakistani mind-set and the Saltoro range is the place where this process takes place. The essence of India’s posture on the Siachen Glacier (whether military or diplomatic or whatever) is to maintain positive pressure on Pakistan – i.e. induce Pakistan to change for the better on matters relating to boundary issues.

One can ask the basic question- Why is Pakistan holding all its ties with India hostage to the resolution of the Siachen issue? In the most general sense, this is what happens when one psychologically invests in a line on a map, if the line is breached even at one point – the psychological aftershocks are felt along the entire line. The destruction of Ghyari base has forced Pakistan to thin down its positions in the middle of Saltoro Range. They can’t defend the Saltoro ridge now and they know it. The Pakistan Army also knows that per the letter of the 1949 CFL agreement, the “entire” Pakistani occupation in Kashmir is illegal. They were supposed to withdraw their forces from the region and they never did. So in their minds they think the only way to hold this region is to be able to stop the Indian Army at the borders. Now if they can’t do on “Siachen” — they fear the LoC is next. They are hostage to that fear.

Photo: tore_umes

The impact of this in material terms for Pakistan is dreadful. They have lost a lot of men and they can’t really rebuild the base without spending vast amounts of money. It is also not clear if any new base they build will be secure against slab avalanches of the kind that destroyed Ghyari. The psychological impact of this is worse. The Pakistani loss at Ghyari is much bigger than the loss of Qaid peak to Gen. Nugyal’s men in 1984. The pain felt at Force Commander Northern Areas (FCNA) in Gilgit is significant.

Given the material shift in the ground situation at Ghyari, India will have to adjust its posture accordingly. With regard to India’s options on the Glacier at this point, there are two schools of thought in the Indian Army – the older “hand-to-hand combat” school and the younger “stand-off warfare” school. The exact posture shift is a matter of internal debate in the Army. The terrain in the Siachen region pushes both man and machine beyond their limits – so the outcome of this debate is not easy to guess. Options such as demilitarisation, withdrawal and the likes are difficult to capture in any level of detail until the posture shift debate is resolved. Equally naturally, the Indian Army’s perspective on the posture shift will likely remain deeply sensitive to the exact ground situation in Ghyari and the perceived mood in Islamabad.

The implications for Indo Pak ties if there is no resolution of the Siachen dispute are many. In the bigger picture, Indo-Pak ties are driven by economic factors. Today Pakistan’s economy is generating more debt than wealth. Without a powerful economy like India to sop up the Pakistani debt or to foster economic productivity – the Pakistani economy is doomed. India can afford to effectively purchase Pakistani debt if the associated risks are defrayed and meaningful collateral is put up. To that end a wider trade regime is needed. Presently there are strong motivating factors on both sides, for example, India needs access to Central and West Asian energy sources, and Pakistan needs water from the Himalayas. A fair trade is possible – but there is problem – no one in India (or anywhere else for that matter) trusts a piece of paper signed by a Pakistani. Ultimately the “Siachen Dispute” is just a piece of paper that will have to be signed by representatives of Pakistan and India — if one cannot get that to work — the chance that other more critical agreements work is low. That has very serious implications for India and Pakistan.

Examining the China angle in the Siachen region it is evident that the Chinese do not care about the Siachen conflict but they seek an expanded presence in region as a whole. This area is close to China’s border with Central Asia and vital lanes of communication run north of here. Also the Chinese have secured lucrative construction contracts in Gilgit Baltistan. And all superpowers have a natural attraction to the high altitude plateau at Deosai. Presently China’s footprint is Gilgit-Baltistan is growing. If this expansion continues unchecked, it will be impossible to keep the spirit of bilateralism that has pervaded Indo-Pak discourse on Jammu and Kashmir since 1947.

“War” and “Peace” are mere phantasms in the reality of the subcontinent which is intimately tied to the present state of Pakistan. If Pakistan goes to war with India, it cannot hope to hold out against an Indian assault as it simply does not have the depth to do so. A Pakistan at peace with India cannot hold out against its own internal centrifugal tendencies and will be ripped apart by internal strife. If Pakistan is to remain, it can only do by maintaining a delicate balance between a state of war and peace — a point where its centrifugal forces are balanced by the pressure exerted by India at its borders. Maintaining such a state of affairs is very difficult. With the advancement of weapons technologies, it likely that the armed forces in the region will remain on a heightened state of alert and the only measure of local stability will be an oscillation between the somewhat discernible states of “ceasefire” and “hostilities imminent”. It is unclear if or when the region will ever transit out of this state of affairs.