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Siachen: Possible New International Moves for ‘Mediation’

P.K. Upadhyay was a Consultant with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses for its Pakistan Project.
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  • March 20, 2013

    The back channel parleys over Siachen sponsored by some international think tanks were in the news a few months back. A wide section of India’s strategic community took exception to what was purportedly agreed to by Indian participants in these parleys. These confabulations, held under the aegis of the Atlantic Council and other US/NATO linked think tanks, gave an impression to many to be promoting a demilitarization of the glacier and the adjoining ridges without settling the issue of territorial jurisdiction or proper and adequate authentication of the current position of the Indian and Pakistani troops in the region. In addition, no measures appeared to be on the table to ensure confidence building and an honest implementation of the proposed agreement. Since then, however, the din and the dust raised by these Indo-Pakistani contacts have subsided and on the surface things seem to be back to square one again. Or, are they really?

    There are indications that some US think tanks, believed to be close to the US Administration, are working assiduously behind the scenes to revive India-Pakistan contacts on Siachen, both at the official as well as non-governmental levels. The US Administration’s interest in this seems to be driven by the desire to continue to engage Pakistan, as also to use the expectations of a US sponsored ‘settlement’ on Siachen as one of the levers to manipulate Pakistan in the period leading to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and thereafter. In September 2012, when the US made overtures to Pakistan to mend ties frayed by the raid on Osama bin-Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad earlier that year, the US Sate Department prepared a package of “various acts of goodwill” for Pakistan. One of those “acts of goodwill” was stated to be an offer to encourage mediation between India and Pakistan through US NGOs like the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD), a State Department supported entity given to researching and promoting the negotiated resolution of various international disputes. Other US NGOs linked with the project are the US National Laboratory at Sandia, linked with the US Department for Energy, and the Atlantic Council. These organisations have been studying the issue of mediation on Siachen for quite some time. IMTD is not an entirely new player in Indo-Pak relations; it claims to have conceptually developed the proposal to start the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service and has been working behind the scenes to promote Indo-Pakistani relations in other fields.

    The key argument developed by IMTD and its associate institutions to pressure India, and Pakistan, through an international campaign if necessary, is the impact of the military conflict in the Siachen region on the ecology of the glacier. The military presence, it is propounded, is maximizing the impact of global warming on the glacier, which is fast shrinking. This would affect the flow of water in the Indus river with its potentially devastating implications for South Asia’s increasing population. Starting from Siachen, IMTD seeks to increase awareness about the protection of the entire Himalayan ecosystem – its forests, wet lands, biodiversity and cryosphere – as a means to ensure the availability of adequate water in the long term. Dealing with this looming crisis would require combined efforts by all the nations in the Himalayan basin, the US NGO contends.

    On Siachen, the IMTD wants to bring the focus of international study on the fate of Himalayan glaciers and the impact of global warming on them. IMDT envisions cooperation of the Indian and Pakistani governments to establish international ‘science centers’ on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). Initially it toyed with the idea of having these centres in Muzaffarabad under the ‘Azad Jammu & Kashmir University’ and in Srinagar under the Sher-e-Kashmir University. These centres were expected to eventually supplant the current military presence on the Siachen glacier with an international scientific one. The Sandia National Laboratory is said to have been studying the demilitarization of the glacier for the last 20 years and seeks to have the area declared a ‘peace park and science center’. The two NGOs have somewhat modified the initial working proposal and now seek to locate the Siachen science centres in Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir at the base of the Saltoro ridge, and at Kargil on the Indian side. In order to facilitate movement between the two centres, the IMTD and Sandia intend to work with the Indian and Pakistani military establishments and governments to open the Skardu-Kargil road for their journey back and forth. In fact, the opening of the Science Centres and the Skardu-Kargil road would be the starting point of multilateral contacts, which these NGOs seek to initiate with the Indian and Pakistan governments as well as academics from the two countries (three from each side). IMTD is also toying with the idea of associating the Chinese with these discussions. Various UN agencies would also be there to, what may amount to, totally undercutting India’s approach of bilateralism in dealing with its neighbours.

    The IMTD and its associate American NGOs on the Siachen project have formulated:

    • Bi-lateral approval to establish the science centres which can become a mediation bracket as India and Pakistan strain their arguments for and against surrendering hardened positions of military advantage. IMTD’s approach would moot: (a) the repeated demands of both militaries for troop deployment verification; (b) tactical and superior advantages for either Army; (c) the toxic ‘lack of trust’ on both sides; (d) fear of ulterior motives; and, (e) possible infiltration by foreign armies. Of equal or greater importance, it would shift the focus from confrontation on the Siachen Glacier and allow Pakistan and India to see it for its real value as their water tower. IMTD will urge a bilateral agreement that the Line of Control terminates at coordinate NJ9842 and from that point on two lines would be drawn north to Sia Kangri and east to the Karakoram Pass. Distance between the two presumed end points is about 100 km following the China border. This is the compromise IMTD seeks to interject into the demilitarization negotiation.
    • Using the northern China border, a huge triangle would come into being and become the object of a Pakistan-India joint proposal to the United Nations to designate that area as an International Peace Park with access measures similar to those of the Antarctic Treaty. A Siachen International Treaty would prohibit any form of military intrusion on the glacier. Both armies would disengage and vacate the designated site and have access to international monitoring data to assure that their territories are not being encroached. And, scientists (as well as mountain climbing expeditions and tourists) would have secure access to the Siachen glacier region while joint military contingents would be available for logistical assistance, transport and rescue.

    A map of the ‘Siachen International Peace Park’ has also been drawn as shown below:

    Placing monitoring equipment, inviting Pakistan to join the US-India Monsoon Desk, measuring snowpack, monitoring weather patterns, mapping glacier volume and creation of glacial lakes would be just a few of the cooperative science projects and tasks the IMTD envisions the science centres to be providing. It contends that these would be to the benefit of India and Pakistan to have better information, forecasts, early warning and trust in each other’s capabilities and willingness to share their findings.

    The entire project is to be funded by various US governmental and non-governmental agencies as well as by UN and international financial institutions. For example, the US State Department’s funding has been sought for initial spade work in the form of organizing international seminars and meetings (including those of Indian and Pakistan scientists and security analysts) to work out a concrete strategy to start the project. The US Department of Energy has been approached for funding of Sandia’s contribution to working out the nuts and bolts of the demilitarization proposal. Multi-lateral banks and UN agencies would be approached in the next phase of this project to underwrite the construction, installation of equipment and hiring of scientists and technicians during the start up and incubation periods. However, IMTD is conscious of the fact that due to changes in personalities and other budgetary constraints, while the State Department may extend political support for the Siachen project but no funding may come forth. Therefore, as a fall back option the IMTD seeks to rope in international and multi-lateral banks and financial institutions, UN agencies and other foreign aid givers to fully bankroll the project.

    How should India deal with this initiative led by US-sponsored NGOs? There could be a view that we have to sit firmly on the Glacier and force the Pakistanis, in due course, to settle the issue of demarcation of the Actual Ground Position Line and territorial claim as per our interests. But it has to be realized that stonewalling on the Siachen issue would not go far. In the globalised environment of 21st century diplomacy, no country can shut the door on negotiations by putting forth rigid and uncompromising demands, except as an initial bargaining move. The Indian nation has to come to a clear understanding of what should be its defined position on the issue and speak with one voice on that. On the flip side, visions of international acceptance and assistance could convince some Indians to readily water down the country’s stand on Siachen. But India can also not just surrender its sovereign and territorial rights on a territory that belongs to it de facto and de jure.

    Therefore, India must develop comprehensive and workable proposals to not just tone down the present Indo-Pak standoff on the glacier and the international attention it may be inviting, but also to ensure reasonable security arrangements against treachery by any third country. This can be ensured through demilitarization of not just the Siachen Glacier, but the entire Karakoram-Western Himalayan-Shaksgam watershed though negotiations, may be a multilateral one, covering the entire north-west part of the sub-continent that is basically part of the same eco-system. India has also to evolve a road-map and respond positively to any multilateral moves for facilitating international interaction in this geographically unique region.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India