“Siachen Track II Forum” on a treacherous trek
The Track II strategy is a conspiracy hatched by Pakistan to make its sinister scheme appear transparent, non-partisan and credible, to evict Indian troops from Siachen which Pakistan desperately needs but cannot snatch it from India by force
Having suffered several defeats and dismemberment at India’s hands, Pakistan should seek peace more eagerly than India. Ironically and illogically, however, it is India that has always been at the receiving end while Pakistan has been getting away with her audacious mischiefs, outright anti-India tirade and perpetrating attacks deep inside India through proxy squads of terrorists trained, equipped and financed under a well organised military system. At last count, over 42 training academies—more mildly called ‘Camps’—are currently running in Pakistan and POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) even when, in a grotesque development, some of India’s very own revered strategists including a former Air Force chief have been easily convinced by their Pakistani counterparts to coax the Indian Army to depart from Siachen as a step towards peace. Called “Track II Forum”, they are a group of retired military brass from Pakistan and India seeking ‘demilitarisation’ of the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, held by Indian troops since 1984. Ever since, the Pakistan Army has tried to dislodge the Indian troops and capture Siachen but in vain.
Or is it the other way round? Prime minister Manmohan Singh was once quoted in India Today (14 May 2012) thus: “Siachen is called the highest battlefield where living is very difficult. Now the time has come that we make efforts that this is converted from a point of conflict to the symbol of peace.” The report went on, “Sources in the government say the prime minister has endorsed the Siachen talks on demilitarisation. For him, they say, the world's highest battlefield—and a snow-capped symbol of the Indian Army’s enduring sacrifice—comes without the baggage of Jammu and Kashmir and forward movement (read demilitarisation) would mean creating the right atmosphere for talks derailed by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Demilitarisation is his CBM (confidence building measure) offer to Pakistan.” The Indian military viewpoint has always been unambiguous and steadfastly against any ‘demilitarisation’ of Siachen. The government, in all fairness, must respect and accept this professional opinion from the country’s military authorities responsible to defend these borders rather than yielding to pressure or blackmail from invisible quarters.
What is perplexing is that the proposal to demilitarise Siachen is said to have germinated in secretive parleys among some very senior military veterans—Indians and Pakistanis—organised as “Track II Forum” under the aegis of “Atlantic Council of Ottawa” and “Atlantic Council of US” (latter headed by Shuja Nawaz—a close confidant of Gen Kiyani) at exotic locales in the world. The Forum flaunting themselves as angels of peace, promise to replace animosities and the age-old trust deficit between India and Pakistan with peace, friendship and cooperation. ‘Demilitarisation’, a euphemism for ‘withdrawal’ or ‘abandonment’ of Siachen by India, is the first step they have proposed while remaining quiet on far more serious issues affecting daily life of millions of people on both sides of the border.
Siachen, at an altitude of 22,000 ft, has nothing to sustain life. All it has is scarce oxygen, chilly winds, icy gorges, debilitating fog, sleet, snow and temperature sinking to minus 50 degree Celsius. No birds fly there, no plants grow, no flowing streams—only frozen glaciers, no life whatsoever! Yet, the gallant Indian soldiers stand here to keep vigil throughout the glacial expanse in sheer defiance to nature and enemy. Even in these adversities, Indian troops holding these dominating heights enjoy a tactical advantage which renders it impossible for the Pakistan Army to wrest control of “key terrain features” in this area by fighting. But Indian occupation of these features denies Pakistan Army the freedom to encroach into Indian territory and stake claims subsequently as is evident by Pakistan’s persistence on delineating the LC (Line of Control) from NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass. The Track II ‘demilitarisation’ proposal, therefore, is Pakistan Army’s silent attack by other nobler looking means to capture the strategically important objective in the region. If this were not so, why are they ignoring to address a host of other higher priority issues hampering normalisation process? Siachen being a desolate uninhabitable tract has no bearing on trade, industry, transport or any other human activity to affect life in Pakistan. Why then is it given such a prominence for normalising relations between the two nations? Since early 2004, even the opposing forces of the two countries have remained largely quiet in this region. Why should a quiet, tranquil Siachen be a cause of anxiety to Pakistan at this stage? Far from being an innocuous peace drive, the move is loaded with Pakistan’s strategic move to unhinge and upturn Indian defences in the region without military manoeuvre.
The vital strategic significance of Siachen is further heightened when viewed in relation to the LC that should justifiably run north from NJ9842 to the vicinity of the Wakhan Corridor, the western extremity of the original state of J&K ceded to India by the Maharaja genuinely and legally, as also the proximity of Shaksgam Valley illegally ceded by Pakistan to China.
Also, it is the strategic value of these dominating heights that stand between a Pak-China link-up. There are rumours that part of upper Gilgit-Baltistan has been leased by Pakistan to China for a period of 50 years. Presence of Chinese troops and labour in the Baltik region lend substance to these inputs. Imagine a geography that would conjoin Xingjiang, Shaksgam, POK (Baltistan), Aksai Chin and Tibet while Siachen is left bereft of Indian troops. If and when that happens, it would be tantamount to ceding areas north of Khardung La range to Pakistan putting life in the Nubra and Shyok Valleys at their mercy and opening floodgates for unhindered infiltration into Ladakh. Indian positions in Ladakh, Leh and Kargil would also be under serious jeopardy. Siachen in its present state stands formidably to deny Pakistan and China such strategic advantages besides asserting India’s sovereign authority over her territory in the region where border, LC or AGPL (Actual Ground Position Line) is yet to be authenticated.
If they were indeed promoting peace and friendship between India and Pakistan, there were other urgencies and priorities that should have caught the attention of Track II Forum. Siachen is not harming Pakistan in any way yet, whereas the terrorist training camps in Pakistan have been bleeding India. The Forum is strangely quiet on this issue. Why are they also not asking Pakistan to expatriate the terrorists and criminals wanted for their crimes in India and now roaming about freely and honourably in Pakistan? Why are they not seeking an undertaking from the Pakistani authorities to stop anti-India tirade at international forums?
If ‘demilitarisation’ of Siachen were logical and prudent in the Track II reckoning, there would be no logic or prudence for India to hold geographical features anywhere along the Line of Control by the same reckoning. With in-house calls for withdrawal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act from J&K already gaining eloquence, it is not impossible to foresee that vacating Siachen would ultimately trigger a demand for the Indian Army to ‘demilitarise’ J&K. By that corollary China would perhaps be the first to seek ‘demilitarisation’ of Arunachal Pradesh. It seems Track II Forum has big future and can plan their exotic jaunts in style!
Some Indian delegates in the Track II Forum are ducking questions and, bereft of argument, some of them brazenly conclude saying, “Siachendemil... it is my personal opinion? You may agree or disagree with it but in my retired capacity, I am free to express whatever I feel!” That is sad and grossly wrongly held notion. Agreed that retirement frees you from the rules and norms that restricted your “free and frank” expression, but the position you held before demitting office has given you an identity and status that conveys credibility and influences public opinion.
Personal opinions of personalities who become publicly recognisable should not be loosely tossed around under the plea of one’s fundamental rights. Even on retirement, military leaders cannot relinquish in life their commitment to “the safety, honour and welfare” of their country and violation of this Chetwodian virtue should be viewed most seriously. The Track II proposal to ‘demilitarise’ (which actually means abandoning) Siachen is not only wrong but a treacherous proposal that smacks of some conspiracy hatched to inflict significant damage through apparently innocuous means and cunning machinations.
Ideally, entire the Indo-Pak border and Line of Control/Actual Ground Position Line should be demilitarised. Maybe one day it will happen too. Perhaps by now both the countries would have achieved such good neighbourliness only if Pakistan had not betrayed India’s trust every time we moved closer to peace and friendship. Given the history of frequent betrayals, infiltration, cross border terrorism and Kargil, India would vacate Siachen at her own peril. Pakistan cannot afford to evict the Indian Army from its dominating positions at the Earth’s highest battlefield militarily. The Track II strategy therefore is a conspiracy hatched by Pakistan co-opting Indian veterans and journalists under the aegis of so-called Atlantic Council of Ottawa to make their sinister scheme appear transparent, non-partisan and credible to evict Indian troops from Siachen which Pakistan needs desperately but cannot snatch it from India by force. An army that is used to planning and executing coups to topple governments seems to have also perfected yet another art of launching quiet warfare in the garb of cool diplomacy to evict the Indian Army from its defences! It is therefore highly expedient for the India Army to consider and include such unconventional machinations and “diplomatic manoeuvrings” as factors while planning war-games to be able to see beyond what looks apparent in our enemy's posturing.
Peace and good neighbourly relations between India and Pakistan or between India and China are very much needed and would be a welcome scenario any day. Sadly, these relations have been far from peaceful or good neighbourly with a history of more blood flow than trade and trust across borders. India’s initiatives for peace and friendship with Pakistan have almost always been betrayed even while agreements were being drafted or formally signed. Prime ministers Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were celebrating peace at Lahore when the Pakistan Army was busy infiltrating to capture Kargil and cut off Siachen. Peace parleys for confidence-building measures were going on between the two countries when Mumbai 26/11 killings happened under the aegis of Pakistan Army/ISI. Yet, people on both sides of the border need and deserve peace and there is ample scope for cooperation to benefit from each other in numerous fields.
But peace cannot be begged. To be lasting, it has to be negotiated from a position of strength, honour, dignity and mutual trust.
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(Col Karan Kharb is a military veteran who commanded an Infantry battalion with many successes in counter-terrorist operations. He was also actively involved in numerous high-risk operations as second in command of the elite 51 Special Action Group of the National Security Guard—widely known as ‘Black Cat Commandos’. He conducts leadership training and is the author of two bestsellers—“Made to Lead” and “Lead to Success”—on leadership development that have also been translated into foreign languages).
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