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Siachen reminder

April 17, 2012

THERE is little reason why a Pakistani tragedy in Siachen should prompt the Indian government to seek a settlement on the icy heights — unless wiser counsel prevails. A ‘comprehensive settlement’ was pledged in the 1989 joint statement signed by the then Pakistani and Indian defence secretaries on June 17 as a result of back-channel diplomacy when Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi were prime ministers. The agreement, which a senior Pakistan Foreign Office official recently asked India to honour, has remained a piece of paper for more than two decades. It is unlikely to be translated into an international treaty because the security establishments of both countries have frustrated attempts by their civilian leaderships to end the conflict on the world’s highest battlefield. At the moment, Indian generals think their troops are in a strategically advantageous position. A pullback to the 1984 positions, before fighting began in Siachen, would in their opinion deprive the Indian army of the operational advantage it enjoys at present. If there is a pullback, the Indian side insists, the existing positions must be marked on maps and ground.

Pakistan’s position is simpler: let the two sides withdraw to the 1984 positions and pledge to turn the glacier into a demilitarised zone. There are reasons to believe that many Indian governments wanted to clinch an agreement on Siachen but were frustrated by their defence establishment. Essentially, it is for the Manmohan Singh government to put its foot down and end a conflict in which more men have died from harsh climatic conditions than in actual combat. A Siachen settlement will have a positive effect on the overall relationship between Pakistan and India and quicken the pace of normalisation.