India-Pakistan politics often resembles the theatre of the bizarre as both sides fight to exceed the absurdities of the other side. Nowhere is this senseless competition more vividly displayed than in the Siachen dispute, whose genesis goes back several decades. Although the 1949 Karachi and 1972 Simla agreements provide detailed delineation up to NJ9842, they merely state that the line will extend north subsequently into the glaciers. Under a compass-based interpretation of ‘north’, Siachen would divide roughly equally between India and Pakistan. However, utilising different rationales, India gives north a north-westerly slant while Pakistan slants it in a north-easterly direction.
Pakistan started issuing international mountaineering permits for Siachen in the 1950s, hoping that a defacto jurisdiction will become accepted as de jure jurisdiction internationally. American cartographers duly obliged their Cold War ally by showing the whole glacier as Pakistani territory. Pakistani hawks laid their claims on all of Siachen based on these occurrences, conveniently ignoring the fact that ceasefire lines emerge from bilateral or UN resolutions only.
Within the maze of India-Pakistan political echo chambers, counter-accusations have become too intermingled for the truth to emerge easily. A quarter-century after the 1984 Indian encroachment far west of the strictly defined north line, both countries continue to squabble zealously over this barren land. The recent avalanche tragedy has precipitated talk of resolving the issue with Nawaz Sharif initially suggesting unilateral withdrawal.
If Pakistan withdraws unilaterally, India could react in three possible ways. Firstly, it may also withdraw. This would suit Pakistan as both sides would withdraw without validating the Actual Ground Position Line desired by India. Secondly, India could remain in Siachen. This, too, would suit Pakistan as India alone would incur the high occupation costs and become the object of international derision perched alone in the frigid mountains in quest of an imaginary snowline. This would allow Pakistan to claim the moral high ground and partially repair its globally tarnished image.
Thirdly, Pakistani hawks contend that India may attempt further incursions from Siachen into Pakistan. Alarming though this option sounds, it is improbable. Unfortunately, having captured a chunk of Kashmir as ‘bhaagtay chor ki langoti’ during Pakistan’s secession, India displays little intention of taking further Pakistani land. However, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is reportedly guided by capabilities and not intentions. Looking at capacities, how will Siachen’s tortuous terrain allow India to transport the significant wherewithal required for attacking Pakistan? Moreover, the Pakistani army will not disappear completely but would still be stationed lower down. Thus, Siachen will remain an infeasible attack point.
Finally, even if India miraculously succeeds in overrunning Pakistani territory, would it be able to retain the land easily? Would it risk such a reckless adventure given the certain backlash from the local population, Pakistani army (conventional and nuclear) and jihadi groups and given the certain global condemnation and sanctions? After pursuing global status since 1990, India has become circumspect about new military misadventures. This is evident from its restrained responses to Kargil, parliament and the Mumbai attacks, unlike earlier overreactions. Similar compelling reasons exist for a unilateral Indian withdrawal. The much smaller Pakistani army could gain little strategic advantage through Siachen that it cannot gain more easily from other border points.
Despite these probable benefits from unilateral withdrawal, both countries should attempt to resolve the issue bilaterally once more, given the clarity and impetus that a bilateral resolution can provide. However, in case of another bilateral failure, both countries should seriously consider unilateral withdrawal. Hawks on both sides argue that withdrawing unilaterally will undermine national honour. However, if it rightly linked to displaying maturity rather than bellicosity, national honour will actually be enhanced.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2012.
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