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Pointless conflict

April 08, 2012

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THE tragedy of over 130 Pakistani soldiers trapped under an avalanche has seen a massive search-and-rescue operation launched in the most difficult of terrains. Grim as the situation is, hope must not be given up. The round-the-clock effort could yield welcome results. Beyond the immediate tragedy, what the latest news from Siachen has done is to once again bring into focus the mindlessness of the Siachen conflict. Forty years ago, it was so improbable that the two countries could militarily face off in that inhospitable region that the Simla Agreement did not envisage demarcating the territory beyond the now infamous map coordinate known as NJ9842 when drawing the Line of Control. But after the Indian armed forces crept into Siachen in 1984 and moved on to the Saltoro Range to the west, Pakistan, alarmed that India had come so close to Skardu, sent its own troops up to the Saltoro Range. It is impossible to guess how many people have died in the conflict. Both sides closely guard the figures and independent estimates are impossible in an otherwise uninhabited area. But it is believed that the overwhelming number of casualties are caused by the altitude, cold and terrain.

What is obvious is that the conflict continues because of the obstinacy of the Indian Army. More than 20 years ago, Pakistani officials proposed a solution: the undemarcated areas under the Simla Agreement become zones of disengagement with both sides withdrawing their troops without prejudice to their pre-Siachen-conflict positions. However, because the Indian Army has captured territory that Pakistan claimed as its own and because all armies are loath to give up a military victory or advantage, however infinitesimal, the Indian Army insists that Pakistan accept its present positions as official, essentially demanding that Pakistan give up its claim to the territory.

Given the predominance of the Pakistan Army in national security and foreign policy here and the ill-advised choices it has made (Kargil is often cited by the Indian military as an example of why Pakistan cannot be trusted) it may seem that the Siachen conflict cannot be solved outside a broader settlement on Kashmir. However, a push by the Indian political side could see the objections of its armed forces overridden. After all, until recently it seemed like the Pakistan Army would never allow large-scale trade with India to be opened in the absence of a settlement on ‘core issues’.