In the absence of trust, authenticating existing ground positions offers India no greater diplomatic or military protection than a well-demarcated zone of mutual disengagement.
20 May 2006
Verify, but trust, is the best formula for Siachen pullout
THE NEXT round of official talks on Siachen is due to take place in New Delhi on May 23-24 but the waters have been so decidedly muddied by the shrill cries of "sell-out" that it is hard to imagine any forward movement taking place this time.
Buoyed by the prospect of scoring political points, BJP leader Jaswant Singh has written to Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee warning the Government to back off from any plan to militarily disengage from Siachen. On May 2, Lal Kishen Advani amplified these unhelpful views at a press conference. In response, the Government — which is also fighting the inflexibility of its Army commanders on the subject — has emphasised that there is "no question" of India withdrawing any soldiers. How this position is to be reconciled with the commitment India and Pakistan made last April to "expedite" the process of settling Siachen is another matter altogether.
In general, those opposed to the withdrawal of Indian troops from Siachen make two points.
First, they stress how difficult it would be for the Indian Army to recapture its positions on the Saltoro Ridge if Pakistan were to renege on any agreement and occupy the glacier. And secondly, that India should not be expected to drop its claim to territory it currently occupies beyond NJ 9842, the point where the Line of Control (LoC) abruptly ends. The answer to both these concerns, the critics say, lies in the joint authentication of the Agreed Ground Position Line (AGPL) currently separating Indian and Pakistani forces north of the LoC. "Any settlement [of Siachen]," Mr. Advani told reporters, "without explicitly confirming the validity of the AGPL would be a violation of the sanctity of the LoC."
Mr. Advani, in effect, is suggesting that the AGPL should be simply redesignated the LoC. Of course, if this were possible, there would be no Siachen dispute to seek a settlement of in the first place.
Perhaps what Mr. Advani was trying to say was that India must ensure that any Pakistani military transgression of the AGPL pursuant to an Indian withdrawal is seen by the international community as a crime as grave as the violation of the LoC in Kargil. After all, the phrase about respecting the sanctity of the LoC was first used by Pakistan in the Blair House declaration issued from Washington at the end of that war in 1999. But if it is legal or international diplomatic cover that India is looking for, rubbing Islamabad's nose on the AGPL is not necessarily the only way of securing it. And if India simply doesn't trust Pakistan enough to vacate the glacier, the signature of a DGMO on a map showing the AGPL will not make the task of recapturing Saltoro any easier.
"Determination of future positions"
Ever since 1989, when India and Pakistan first agreed to redeploy their forces away from the disputed heights, the issue of AGPL authentication has prevented a rational settlement from being reached.
The joint press communiqué released on June 17, 1989 — after the fifth round of talks between the defence secretaries from both sides — presented the basic contours of a settlement. "There was agreement by both sides," the joint statement noted, "to work towards a comprehensive settlement, based on redeployment of forces to reduce the chances of conflict, avoidance of the use of force and the determination of future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Shimla Agreement and to ensure durable peace in the Siachen area."
The 1989 joint statement said nothing about marking present positions but spoke instead of "the determination of future positions on the ground" by the two army authorities. By 1992, a "Zone of Complete Disengagement" had also been worked out but this entire approach was derailed by India's insistence that Pakistan authenticate the AGPL prior to withdrawal. Pakistan refused to do this for two reasons. First, it feared India would use the authenticated AGPL to buttress its claim to the glacier when negotiations on extending the LoC beyond NJ 9842 are eventually held. Secondly, according to Indian officials, the Pakistani army has consistently misled its own people by overstating the extent of its presence in the area. Signing a map that clearly shows the Indian army sitting astride the Saltoro ridge would presumably be embarrassing for it.
Today, as India considers the contours of a settlement, it needs seriously to ask how a jointly authenticated AGPL will provide any greater legal, diplomatic or military protection than a clearly demarcated and signed Zone of Complete Disengagement. In any case, the schedule of redeployment of existing forces to future positions is bound to also involve identification of specific forces at their current position of deployment. The AGPL will thus be authenticated in all but name. The creation of a no-go zone with joint and individual verification through aerial and electronic means would provide India ample military protection against a sudden Pakistani incursion. And as far as the international community is concerned, a Pakistani violation of the Zone of Complete Disengagement would surely be treated on a par with any violation of an authenticated AGPL.
Beyond this, however, is the issue of trust. Asked how he could sign arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan used to speak of "trust, but verify." In Siachen, we need "verify, but trust." Robust verification of the zone of disengagement is a must. But if India is simply not prepared to trust General Pervez Musharraf or the Pakistani military over the Siachen issue, it should abandon any pretence of trying to reach a "settlement".
In the absence of trust, what good is an authenticated AGPL? If Siachen is indeed of such strategic importance for the country and if all that stands between the Pakistani military and the very security of Ladakh is the presence of Indian troops on Saltoro, then what good is an authenticated AGPL? Even if Pakistan is willing to authenticate current positions in Siachen, India would be foolish to abandon its posts.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke last year of turning Siachen into a mountain of peace. He can do no better than to cut through the fog of illogic which the authentication-wallahs have spread by pushing for mutual, verifiable military redeployment away from a clearly demarcated zone of complete disengagement.
An agreement on Siachen will pay rich dividends on the Kashmir front, where the contours of a non-territorial solution have already begun to emerge.
Let not the congenital insecurities of our establishment and the political grandstanding of the Opposition come in the way of a sensible end to a senseless conflict, which has taken the lives of so many brave soldiers on either side.
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