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Siachen dispute

June 13, 2012

TO no one’s surprise, the talks between the Pakistani and Indian secretaries of defence on the Siachen dispute have concluded without any forward movement. The boilerplate joint statement promising to “make serious, sustained and result-oriented efforts for seeking an amicable resolution of Siachen” offers little consolation because those are precisely the kind of efforts that are missing from the equation. Since the tragedy in Gayari in April, the madness of the Siachen conflict has been fully exposed — yet again. But so has the stubbornness on both sides. The fact that the Indian Army has blocked a return to the pre-Siachen conflict status of that uninhabitable region is by now recognised by one and all. The first step towards ending the senseless conflict — although a ceasefire for much of the last decade has meant at least the direct fighting has ended — must therefore be taken by the Indian side. However, as Ahmed Mukhtar hinted after he left the defence portfolio, the overall fault lies on both sides. There is so much mistrust between the old military adversaries — exemplified by the recklessness that was Kargil in 1999 — that to convince one side that the other will abide by a written agreement and will not try to take advantage of a withdrawal is simply too difficult.

However, try both sides must. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have been weakened by scandals at home but it is known that he cherishes the idea of normalising relations with Pakistan. There is still a narrow window of opportunity for Mr Singh to visit Pakistan later this year and perhaps solidify the gains in the Pak-India relationship that 2012 has offered. While it is difficult for a political leadership to overcome its army high command in even the most democratic dispensations of the world — the Obama administration’s struggles with its military on the way forward in Afghanistan being one example; the Siachen veto wielded by the Indian Army being another — ultimately statesmanship is about grasping the nettle. The blood and treasure lost over Siachen hurts India and Pakistan and neither side has anything more to gain than bragging rights, satisfying military egos to take uncalled-for risks. India should lead the way.

Over here in Pakistan, the focus on Siachen should not detract from other areas where potential gains are being frittered away.

A markedly improved visa regime between the two countries had only to be signed by the Pakistani side last month but somehow that didn’t happen. Similarly, movement on trade is being gummed up with new objections and concerns. Pakistani policymakers need to get their act together soon.