THE avalanche under which 124 soldiers of the Pakistan Army and 11 civilians have been buried at Gayari in Siachen is nothing less than a catastrophe.

While rescue efforts are still under way, given the realities of the region there is little chance of any of these men being found alive. In all the years that troops have been stationed in Siachen, the weather and inhospitable terrain have claimed more lives than actual combat. Yet this is probably the most tragic event where so many lives have been lost in one go.

The disaster should serve as a wake-up call for Pakistan and India to revisit the Siachen issue, and delve into the logic of why troops are there at all.

The issue started when, in 1984, India quietly deployed troops to an area devoid of any human, animal or vegetative presence. Pakistan decided to similarly deploy troops there to prevent any further Indian advance.

Initially, a few skirmishes took place over the consolidation of positions around tactically important localities. Subsequently, though, the situation resulted in almost an undeclared ceasefire, with the major challenge being the survival of the men of both countries in such a harsh terrain.

Siachen is the highest-altitude battlefield in the world. Pakistan and India spend billions in order to maintain troops there, with India spending a comparatively much higher amount because its troops are camped on a glacier and have to be supported by a fleet of helicopters.

Yet the costs incurred by the Pakistan Army over maintaining a presence at Siachen are enormous too, even though it has developed a rough road network supporting its main bases.

The difficulties associated with the area are immense. Temperatures go down as low as -50 degrees Celsius, and the rarity of air and associated lack of oxygen pose significant challenges. This means, for instance, that the lift capacity of the special helicopters operating in the area is reduced when they go up to high-altitude posts. Troops need special apparel and gear for survival. Many are incapacitated due to frostbite and other weather-related conditions. There is not enough oxygen to light fires for even cooking purposes.

All this hardship becomes senseless given the fact that the area cannot be used for large troop movements that either country could use to outflank or out-manoeuvre the other. The occupation of Siachen makes no military sense at all.

Under the 1972 Simla Agreement, the line of control between Pakistan and India was delineated up to a point known as NJ9842. The dotted line then proceeds northeast so that Siachen clearly appears on the Pakistan side. The agreement’s script states that from this point onwards, the line will proceed northwards as shown by the dotted line. This represents Pakistan’s claim in the years-long debate.

In the early 1980s, reports surfaced that some Indian reconnaissance parties had been visiting the area occasionally. Some cigarette packets and food packages found on the main Siachen glacier confirmed these activities. The matter was still under active consideration at Pakistan’s GHQ when news came that the glacier had been occupied by India with an approximately brigade-strength deployment.

As a result, a brigade of the Pakistan Army was immediately sent up. This brigade occupied all the passes giving access to the Siachen glacier, which prevented India from gaining access to areas administered by the government of Pakistan. This position, known as the Conway Saddle, continues to be firmly held by the Pakistan Army (the Indian post in the area is Indra Kol).

There have been a number of rounds of negotiations between the two sides to resolve this issue. The Pakistan point of view has been that we need to revert to the pre-1984 positions while India insists that we first authenticate these positions and then withdraw. This means that Pakistan would cede this area to India.

This, however, is against international law, from the Westphalia agreement of 1648 to UN resolutions in more recent years. When, in any conflict, a country occupies the territory of its enemy, it must vacate it after an agreement is reached. This was the case after the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan, and internationally such as the Israeli occupation of Sinai and other areas.

But India states that in the script of the Simla Agreement, “northwards” means 90 degrees north and ignores the dotted line drawn on the map.

I have been part of these negotiations. Pakistan’s foreign and defence secretaries were proceeding for talks with their Indian counterparts and they asked whether Pakistan could provide any concessions that could provide India with a face-saving exit. I suggested that certain small glaciers in the vicinity of the Nubra river, which issues out of the Siachen glacier, could be granted to them.

Both the sides have come close to an agreement on a number of occasions. Consistently, though, agreement has been prevented by some last minute hitches on the Indian side.

Of late, and particularly after the Kargil debacle, India has been accusing Pakistan of being untrustworthy. In terms of Siachen, though, this is a lame excuse. This high-altitude glacial area cannot be used for large-scale manoeuvres or large troop deployment. The status quo is detrimental for both sides. Perhaps it is time for international guarantors to step in to convince both the countries to call off this madness.

The writer is retired brigadier, former home secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and former secretary Fata.

mahmoodshah@mahmoodshah.com

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