ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari finally made it to Siachen even though his trip was overshadowed by Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s statement on Wednesday.
Accompanied by Gen Kayani, the president visited the Gayari sector of Siachen Glacier, where an avalanche had buried over a 100 troops on April 7.
A trip by the president scheduled for Monday was cancelled due to bad weather and on Tuesday opposition leader Nawaz Sharif managed to beat him by visiting Gayari and speaking in favour of a reduction in defence expenditure and demilitarisation of the region and asked the government to take the lead in resolving the Siachen conflict.
On Wednesday, when President Zardari finally made it to the area, Gen Kayani stole the limelight by acknowledging the need for resolving the Siachen conflict and for a peaceful co-existence with India.
However, he insisted that the focus, for the moment, should remain on the Gayari tragedy.
“I have been hearing a lot of comments. We should focus on this tragedy. The troops had been deployed to defend the country,” Gen Kayani said as he reviewed the rescue effort along with the president.
It is noteworthy that the tragedy has intensified the debate in Pakistan on the Siachen conflict; a growing number of people have demanded its resolution, with some commentators and peaceniks even demanding a unilateral withdrawal of Pakistani troops.
Mr Sharif on Tuesday seemed to add his voice to this chorus.
Although Gen Kayani did not directly name Mr Sharif, he appeared to be reacting to the PML-N chief’s statement when he said that Pakistan’s forces had come to the area in response to the Indian occupation of Siachen Glacier in 1984.
“The army’s job is to defend the country, whatever the cost,” he added.
But he did reiterate that “the issue should be resolved. All issues should be resolved”.
Voicing support for the peace talks re-launched last year, he maintained that “peaceful co-existence was very important for both countries and there should be no doubt about that”.
He also referred to the several rounds of talks held between the two countries but stopped short of blaming the Indians: “There were times when we came close to a solution, but then nothing happened.”
The presidency welcomed the army chief’s comments: “We think that it was a positive statement,” said the president’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar.
In private, Pakistani diplomats and army officials accuse the Indian army of stalling progress on the issue — this was even mentioned in the US diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks.
It is important to note that diplomats and defence officials from India and Pakistan are expected to meet later this month for resuming their dialogue on Siachen. The Gayari tragedy will now provide the backdrop against which these talks will be held.
Both sides admit the futility of the conflict, but differ over the resolution.
India wants Pakistan to authenticate the Actual Ground Position Line (the positions currently held by both sides) on the maps as well as on the ground, but Islamabad has been insisting on withdrawing to the positions agreed to in the Simla Agreement.
Pakistan feels that accepting the Indian demand would “legitimise” India’s “intrusion” into Siachen.
Defence secretaries of the two countries in 1989 came close to resolving the issue but India backed out. Ceasefire has been holding in the region since 2003.