Siachen Glacier Tragedy: An Opportunity for Peace?

The death of over a hundred Pakistani soldiers due to an avalanche on April 7 has brought forth the forgotten frozen frontiers of Siachen in the news cycle. This is the world’s highest battlefield where more die of hypothermia than of battle wounds and yet no end is in sight for this senseless conflict. Seven years ago, I wrote an article for India’s Sanctuary Asia magazine on how to quell this conflict using ecological approaches. This was a very practical solution modeled after the Antarctic treaty, which erstwhile adversaries such as the United States and the Soviet Union signed at the height of the Cold War. As the world’s longest non-polar glacier, Siachen has particular importance for science and since this region is not habitable by humans, there is little value in terms of useful real-estate. In the age of military drones and cyber warfare, coupled with a massive nuclear deterrent, the strategic value of Siachen is also very limited. This is the most hostile border to cross and is clearly not on the priority list for terrorist infiltration! Contrary to popular opinion in both India and Pakistan, incursions such as the Kargil episode also have no connection to strategic advantage over Siachen. Even if troop deployments now extend across the full range, such deployments are malleable and the cooperative monitoring system proposed in various peace plans could easily assuage concerns of security on both sides.

 

The World's Highest Battleground: Photo by Dhritiman Mukherjee, Courtesy Sanctuary Asia

 

Yet despite all these very pragmatic reasons provided, the resolution to the Siachen dispute has still eluded us. I had many high hopes for a distinguished Prime Minister (PM) like Manmohan Singh to work practically to resolve this particular dispute. Four months after my article was published, the Prime Minister actually visited Siachen (the first such visit by an Indian PM). His speech there on June 12, 2005 was very heartening as he noted: “nobody fears any threat, there is no scope for any conflict and this place becomes an example of peaceful environment… How long shall we allow such conditions to prevail (in Siachen)? Now the time has come for us to make efforts to convert this battlefield into a peace mountain.”

Science For Peace
Sadly these words have not been acted upon and the blame games continue from both sides of the border. Since the glacier is physically under Indian control,  leadership in resolving this dispute will have to come from India. The idea of a ‘science for peace’ effort has also received wide ranging strategic study by eminent personalities in the military establishment in India, including Retd. Air Marshall Nanda Cariappa and Retd. Brigadier General Gurmeet Kanwal (current director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies). The United States Sandia National Labs’ Cooperative Monitoring Center sponsored two rounds of joint strategy papers on Siachen conflict resolution which were coauthored with Pakistani counterparts. In these documents as well the prospects for territorial resolution of this conflict through the establishment of science for peace initiative were positively discussed. A law student at Georgetown University at the time, Neal Kemkar, soon thereafter even authored a detailed paper laying out the legal mechanisms by which such a peace park could operate and the paper was published in the Stanford Environmental Law Review. All the groundwork for such a resolution is already in place.

Time To Take Action Now

Technology now exists for monitoring any potential violations of treaties and accords signed to resolve this dispute through remote sensing and so having troops physically on the ground is also utterly unnecessary. The only people who would genuinely like to visit Siachen are environmental scientists and mountaineers. Creating a zone of visitation from both sides of the border to the Siachen region for scientists and mountaineers and equally sharing any economic revenues from such activity would be a means of operationalizing the resolution of the conflict. Similar to the Antarctic treaty, neither side would relinquish their claims of sovereignty to the area but would place all such claims in abeyance for the higher purpose of science.

In this time of great ecological stress in the Himalayas with epic floods within the past two years, there is a golden opportunity for the outgoing Prime Minister to  make his mark with a valedictory gesture of true leadership, harkening back to his historic visit to the glacier. This is not just a pie in the sky idea – it is a tangible and  realizable goal for pragmatic peace that must move forward independently of other agenda items on the Indo-Pak list of grievances. The political heat for moving forward on Siachen peace will be momentary and the outcome of planetary value for generations to come. President Zardari made a visit to India on April 8 (a day after the avalanche) to pay homage to a sufi saint and also met with Prime Minister Singh. Let’s hope that both civilian leaders and their respective military establishments show political courage to move forward on conflict resolution on the glacier so that the lives of soldiers in Siachen are not lost in vain.

Changing Planet

Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.