Demilitarisation of Siachen

President Asif Ali Zardari has proposed a withdrawal of both Indian and Pakistani troops from the Siachen glacier, the highest and costliest battlefield in the world. The two neighbours maintain a permanent military presence at a height of over 20,000 feet, which has led to more deaths due to the extreme weather conditions than to each other’s military might. It must be noted that human endurance is severely tested at altitudes above 26,000 feet, also known as the ‘death zone’ because no human being can acclimatise himself to such harsh weather conditions. Thus it would be wise to demilitarise Siachen rather than keep each other engaged on a battlefield that has proved to be disastrous both economically and militarily. Pakistan had been in control of the Siachen glacier till 1984 when India surreptitiously occupied it. The requisite political will has been absent, thus India and Pakistan have tantalisingly remained short of a resolution to this futile conflict. It is in this context that President Zardari has pragmatically offered an olive branch.

The president said, “Even though Indian expenditures in Siachen are far more than Pakistan’s, we propose that the matter should be resolved amicably through talks, so that the resources of the two countries can be spent on the welfare of their people.” As per his remarks, India spends $ 50 per day on one soldier in Siachen while Pakistan spends Rs 50. While the president may have his own sources of information, India might be spending more on its soldiers but Rs 50 is too low an amount to be spent on mountain warfare and may thus be an understated figure. The financial and human cost of keeping troops in as forbidding a terrain as Siachen is extremely high. Pakistan has a low logistical cost compared to India, since the latter has to ferry a lot of supplies by air while we are able to transport the bulk of our supplies by road, but it still puts a large dent in both countries’ defence budget. The cost of providing special gear to the soldiers, medical care in the light of oedema, frostbite and other such high altitude afflictions is also quite high. Troops are on rapid rotation as it is dangerous for soldiers to stay at such a height for long. The high cost would have been hard to justify even if we were in a war-like situation but under the circumstances when there is no tangible tactical or strategic reason to continue this madness, one is at a loss why the two sides fail to see reason. Siachen is perpetually a frozen world with no conceivable military advantage. It is a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

The right thing to do would be a withdrawal of troops and to turn Siachen into a peace park. Global warming is leading to glacial melting all over the world. The Himalayan glaciers too are melting and the use of firearms and military presence in Siachen is not helping. In fact, this presence is actually accelerating glacial melting. The need of the hour is to establish a cooperative regime of managing the Himalayan glacial melt and ensure that these natural water reservoirs are maintained, which would benefit both countries. Poverty is proving to be Pakistan’s oedema, which is why we need to cut down our defence spending and concentrate more on development that would benefit the masses. And since both Pakistan and India are ostensibly working towards normalisation and peace, this useless conflict should come to an end, the sooner the better.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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