Russian Roulette in South Asia

The India-Pakistan conflict over the Siachen glacier is heating up again. The next war could be over a frozen wasteland.

The conflict between India and Pakistan has produced four wars, endless terrorism and is a core cause of the political instability that wracks Pakistan and destabilizes its civil-military balance. The two countries every few years go to the brink of war because of Pakistani sponsored terror, like playing Russian roulette only with nuclear weapons. It is imperative they start to resolve their differences. The good news is their democratically elected leaders have begun to talk again. They need to move the dialogue from talk to action. The place to start is a battlefield at the top of the world, the Siachen glacier.

Siachen is an uninhabited 1000-square-mile wasteland at the northern tip of Kashmir, where India, Pakistan and China come together. The border between India- controlled Kashmir and Jammu and Pakistani-controlled Azad Kashmir was not demarcated here at the end of the 1948 war. In April 1984, India preempted a Pakistani plan to seize the glacier by moving troops onto it first. The Indians had learned that Pakistan was buying hundreds of suits of artic-weather gear from a London store, correctly judged it was to outfit troops for Siachen and went first.

For the next twenty years Pakistan tried to wrest control of the glacier from India. Hundreds on both sides died in the fighting or from the extreme conditions of fighting at twenty thousand feet. The financial cost of sustaining troops in the Himalayas was staggering. Pakistani commandoes, including a young General Pervez Musharraf, made heroic efforts to gain the heights; Indian soldiers just as heroically defended their gains. In 2003 a ceasefire was agreed, but the two still are face-to-face, fighting over a piece of ice.

Last week Indian and Pakistani negotiators met to try to resolve the issue and demilitarize the glacier. Prime Ministers Manmahon Singh and Syed Yousef Raza Gilani agreed to resume the negotiations, suspended after the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008, earlier in the spring. But the talks could not resolve a key issue: how to ensure that both sides would not cheat after withdrawing their forces and rush troops back onto the glacier sometime in the future. Since both have a habit of cheating on the Kashmir front it is no idle fear.

The answer is to put a neutral force on the glacier. The South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should deploy a couple of hundred armed Gurkha troops from Nepal or the British army to police the ice and serve as a trip wire against cheating. India and Pakistan would pay for it and provide logistical support. The United Nations Security Council would pass a resolution endorsing the SAARC force and committing to support it if either side violated the deal. The United States would separately promise to use its national technical-intelligence capabilities and satellite imagery to further monitor the area.

Ending the Siachen madness, a war for a frozen wasteland, makes sense on its own merits but it could also begin a process of conflict resolution that could move south to Kashmir proper. It would give the nascent Indo-Pakistani dialogue some momentum. This small start could begin a larger process. It would energize SAARC, which has never lived up to its potential as a regional organization. It might start a peace process for a subcontinent. The alternative is to wait for the next round of Russian roulette in South Asia.

Image by Callaway d1nonly1