The PML-N leader, Nawaz Sharif, has visited the Gayari sector of the Siachen Glacier to express his solidarity with the Pakistani troops performing duty there and to commiserate with them over the victims of the April 7 avalanche. He delivered a statesmanlike opinion about what Pakistan should do to prevent future tragedies. He said: “the Pakistani government should take the lead and withdraw its troops from the Siachen Glacier; let’s not make it a matter of ego. Pakistan should take the initiative”.
Mr Sharif should know a little bit more about the issue of Siachen than others because in 1999, as prime minister, he suffered the humiliation of a botched offensive — the Kargil Operation — to get the Indians down from the Glacier. It is clear that he no longer buys the military argument that focuses on the revisionist strategy of responding to challenge with counterchallenge. No one in the world approves of what India and Pakistan are doing at 21,000 feet, losing their soldiers to frostbite and avalanches. Common sense says if Pakistan climbs down, it will lose nothing.
Neither would the skies fall if Pakistan gets the Indians to climb down by agreeing on a map with the current placement of troops on both sides. On TV, an ex-general lost his cool when this was put to him, but his response was more emotional than rational. Just because Pakistani troops are at a lower height than the Indians he lost sight of the fact that India will come down from an area where human life is not tenable; and if Pakistan-India relations improve, there will be no need for anyone to return to Siachen. In 1962, India fought a war with China after the Chinese built a road through Aksai Chin, a part of the Kashmir territory under Indian control. The former lost the war but learned the futility of fighting for a ‘strategically unimportant’ piece of frozen real estate. Now India’s trade with China is worth $100 billion.
India began by first redefining the Aksai Chin territory it lost to China as ‘territory of no strategic value’. Then it took the stance of ‘isolating’ the dispute over this territory while moving in the direction of normalisation with China in the 1980s. Pakistan became upset when China rewarded India by supplying it with heavy water. It periodically gets upset in editorials in the national press when a fresh China-India effort at normalisation comes to fruition.
Ashley J Tellis in his India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (OUP, 2001) tells us that India has rationalised its anti-status quo stance by unofficially accepting that the territory it lost in Aksai Chin in the Jammu and Kashmir sector was of more strategic value to China (because of the route connecting it with Tibet) than to India. It has ‘compensated’ itself with the thought that the 90,000 kilometre territory claimed by China in Arunachal Pradesh in north-eastern India was still under India’s effective control and was of more strategic value to India. This ‘adjustment’ has allowed India to normalise trade relations with China and minimise its contradictions with its militarily and much-superior neighbour in the north.
The Indian army is interested in the big budget it receives for being on Siachen — a million dollars a day — and has linked its presence there to glacier research, which it says will help in exploring the South Pole for minerals, and possibly oil.
Our army is brave but why should it prove right the adage that it is better to be “unbrave” because it teaches us to live on the basis of wisdom rather than emotion.
Also, after visiting the Gayari site, army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani in response to questions from journalists said that the army was at Siachen because of India’s actions — but that both India and Pakistan needed to resolve the issue so that resources could be used elsewhere.
Mr Nawaz Sharif has rightly chosen wisdom rather than ‘national honour’ by advising a “unilateral” withdrawal from Siachen. He remembers the year 1999 when his approach to India was sabotaged by ‘freedom-fighters’ at Kargil. A ‘nuclear’ Pakistan erred by waging a conventional war and endangered the world and was roundly condemned by all countries. Now let us earn some praise.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2012.