Why the ice didn’t melt

The anodyne joint statement said it all. No progress was made on the Siachen dispute in talks earlier this month between the defence officials of Pakistan and India.

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi (Debate)

Published: Thu 21 Jun 2012, 8:43 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:42 PM

The only agreement indicated in the statement issued at the conclusion of the talks was for officials to meet again. The June 11-12 defence secretaries’ talks also failed to advance discussion of what should be a non-contentious aspect of Siachen — the environmental degradation being caused by military activity on the glacier.

The thirteenth round of talks on the 28-year old dispute turned out to be a virtual replay of the previous round of May 2011. Both sides restated their well-rehearsed positions. The Indian side insisted that before demilitarization Pakistan should agree on authentication of present troop positions and demarcation of the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). Pakistan rejected this and asked for a response to its non-paper handed over last year. But Indian officials argued this contained “nothing new”. This unedifying outcome was foretold well before the talks by statements from top Indian leaders in the run up to the negotiations. Some of these were prompted by public remarks made by Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in April when he visit Gayari sector after the avalanche tragedy that claimed the lives of 139 soldiers and civilians. He called for demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier and “peaceful resolution” of all disputes between Pakistan and India. This drew a tepid response from Delhi. Defence Minister AK Antony told the Rajya Sabha that authentication of present (Indian) troop positions was a pre-requisite for any progress.

India’s chief of army staff, VK Singh went further. In an interview he cast General Kayani’s call for a peaceful resolution as “nothing new” and ruled out any pullback by the Indian army from Siachen. And on the eve of the talks Minister Antony warned not to “expect (any) dramatic announcement or decision on an issue which is very important for (our) national security.” A day before, a meeting of India’s cabinet committee on security apparently decided — and then leaked to the media — that Delhi would not give up its advantage in the glacier area.

In this unpromising backdrop, the two days of talks in Rawalpindi went according to the script. Pakistan’s effort to elicit an Indian response to its 2011 non-paper came to naught.

In the non-paper, Islamabad had reiterated the principles for a settlement agreed to by the two countries in 1989 – redeployment outside the zone of conflict, a monitoring and verification mechanism to be determined by military experts, and demarcation of the Line of Control beyond NJ 9842 thereafter. In a demonstration of flexibility Pakistan also offered that a schedule of withdrawal could consist of lists of both “present” and “future” positions. This would be subject to the stipulation that these would exclusively be for monitoring purposes and not to stake any legal claim at the time of a final settlement.

The Indian side rejected this. To bridge differences on sequencing the steps needed for demilitarisation and address India’s how-can-we-trust-you argument, the Pakistani delegation suggested that agreed steps could be undertaken simultaneously. This too was turned down.

Pakistan’s effort to engage the other side in a discussion on environmental degradation owing to human activity on the glacier elicited no response. The Indian side declined to accept that any degradation was taking place. Consequently it was unwilling to include any reference to this issue in the joint statement or to pursue further discussions on this.

The Indian emphasis was on creating an environment of trust and confidence before trying to solve disputes. In this context the Indian delegation called for new CBMs, including visits between military institutions and exchange of military bands. The Pakistani side saw this as sidestepping the real issue.

With no progress accomplished in the thirteenth round and little prospect of overcoming this impasse, the dialogue on Siachen has increasingly become more about process than outcome.

The signal this sends is that India wants normalization of relations with Islamabad to proceed only in areas on its priority list – trade, people-to-people contact, economic and cultural ties, and not resolution of long standing disputes, which top Pakistan’s priorities.

The key question this raises is whether Pakistan-India normalisation can be sustained without solving the disputes that lie at the root of long-standing tensions? Surely a diplomatic dance around the real issues – with a focus on process not progress – can hardly establish the basis for a lasting peace.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and United Kingdom

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