Why the ice didn’t melt

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.


The anodyne joint statement said it all. No progress was made on the Siachen dispute in last week’s talks between the defence officials of Pakistan and India. The only agreement indicated by the statement issued at the conclusion of the talks was for officials to meet again. The June 11-12 defence secretaries’ talks also failed to advance discussion of what should be a non-contentious aspect of Siachen – the environmental degradation being caused by military activity on the glacier.


The thirteenth round of talks on the 28-year old dispute turned out to be a virtual replay of the previous round of May 2011. Both sides restated their well-rehearsed positions. The main obstacle remained India’s insistence that before demilitarisation Pakistan should agree on authentication of present troop positions and demarcation of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). The Indian delegation also dismissed Pakistan’s non-paper handed over last year as containing “nothing new”.


This unedifying outcome was foretold well before the talks by statements from top Indian leaders in the weeks and days leading up to the negotiations. Some of these were prompted by public remarks made by Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in April when he visited Gayari sector after the avalanche tragedy that claimed the lives of 139 soldiers and civilians. He called for demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier and “peaceful resolution” of all disputes between Pakistan and India.


This evoked a lively media debate in both countries. But it drew a tepid response from Delhi. India’s junior Defence Minister Pallam Raju avoided comment on the need to resolve the dispute making only a perfunctory statement about the challenge of maintaining troops on the glacier. More significantly Defence Minister AK Antony told the Rajya Sabha that authentication of present (Indian) troop positions was a pre-requisite for any progress in negotiations.


India’s chief of army staff, VK Singh went further. In an interview he cast General Kayani’s call for a peaceful resolution as “nothing new”, ruled out any pullback by the Indian army from Siachen, and gratuitously added “all of Jammu and Kashmir belongs to India”. He also made light of the hope expressed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he visited Siachen some years ago to make the glacier “a mountain of peace”. “We should not”, said General Singh, “succumb to these bouts of thinking about peace mountains”.


Meanwhile a flood of articles in the Indian press ahead of the Rawalpindi talks urged Delhi not ‘give away’ India’s hard won military gains on the negotiating table. A common refrain of many in India’s strategic community was that if India did not retain the Saltoro ridge, a ‘Pakistan-China axis’ would bring the Karakorum Pass under its control and jeopardise the security of Ladakh.


Minister Antony declared on the eve of the talks not to “expect (any) dramatic announcement or decision on an issue which is very important for (our) national security.” A day before, a meeting of India’s cabinet committee on security apparently decided – and then leaked to the media – that Delhi would not give up its tactical and strategic advantage in the glacier area.


This was a repeat of what preceded last year’s talks. On the eve of the twelfth round India’s top national security official told Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi not to “expect anything” from the parleys.


In this unpromising backdrop, two days of talks in Rawalpindi went according to the script. Pakistan’s effort to elicit an Indian response to the constructive ideas contained in its 2011 non-paper came to naught. The Indian delegation saw nothing in these proposals to provide a basis to move forward.


In the non-paper, Islamabad had reiterated the principles for a settlement agreed to by the two countries in 1989 – redeployment outside the zone of conflict, a monitoring and verification mechanism to be determined by military experts, and demarcation of the Line of Control beyond NJ 9842 thereafter. In an important demonstration of flexibility Pakistan also offered that when a schedule of withdrawal was drawn up it could consist of lists of both “present” and “future” positions. This would be subject to the stipulation that these would exclusively be for monitoring purposes and not to stake any moral or legal claim at the time of a final settlement of the dispute.


The Indian side rejected this, offered no new ideas, and reiterated its familiar position of authentication and demarcation of present positions on the ground and on the map, with demilitarisation and “future positions” to follow later.


To bridge differences on sequencing the steps needed for demilitarisation and address India’s how-can-we-trust-you argument, the Pakistani delegation suggested that agreed steps could be undertaken simultaneously. But the Indian side refused to budge from its position.


When Pakistani negotiators said a solution to Siachen was important for peace and security in South Asia, this was met by the familiar Indian argument that Delhi had larger concerns beyond South Asia -an obvious reference to China.


The Pakistani delegation’s effort to engage the Indian side in a discussion on environmental degradation due to human activity on the glacier elicited no response. The Indian side declined to accept that any degradation was in progress and instead referred to reports suggesting there had been no negative environmental impact. It was also unwilling to include any reference to this issue in the joint statement or to pursue further discussions on this.


Pakistan’s desire for a speedy solution was conveyed by the proposal to convene another round of talks quickly without waiting for another year to go by. This too got little traction. The Indian emphasis was on first creating an environment of trust and confidence before looking for solutions to disputes, an echo of its characteristic position in previous rounds. In this context the Indian delegation emphasised instituting new CBMs including visits between military institutions and exchange of military bands. The Pakistani side read this as sidestepping the real issue.


With no progress accomplished in the thirteenth round and little prospect of Delhi showing the flexibility needed to overcome the impasse, the dialogue on Siachen has increasingly become more about process than outcome.


Among the broader signals sent by the Indian stance three are noteworthy. One, India wants normalisation of relations between the two countries to proceed only in areas on its priority list – trade, people-to-people contact, economic and cultural ties, and not resolution of long-standing disputes, which top Pakistan’s priorities. Two, little or no progress can be expected in the dialogue on various disputes because – for now – Delhi perceives no need to make compromises. With diminished interest by the international community to nudge Delhi in this direction and the US wooing India in its strategic aim to contain China, Delhi sees no pressure or incentive to show the accommodation needed to settle disputes with Pakistan.


Three, emphasising confidence building measures enables Delhi to postpone or deflect addressing the substance of disputes and even serve as an alibi to avoid finding solutions to disputes. It is interesting to note in this regard that while India ‘trusts’ Pakistan enough to open up and expand trade, that trust evaporates when it comes to addressing outstanding disputes.


The key question this raises is whether Pakistan-India normalisation can be sustainable without solving the disputes that lie at the root of long-standing tensions? Surely a diplomatic dance around the real issues – with a focus on process not progress – can hardly establish the basis for enduring peace.