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After The Talks: Grim state of Indo-Pak ties

By Praful Bidwai

Nothing has cast such a pall of gloom since the nuclear tests on Indo-Pakistan relations as the failure of the two to reach substantive agreements on most issues during the latest round of talks, their first in six years. No real agreement emerged on the hopeful issue of economic cooperation. No one expected much progress on terrorism and narcotics. But the mutual recrimination became disturbing once Mr L.K. Advani set the tone by branding Pakistan a "terrorist" state. Islamabad duly responded in kind.

Even the "soft" Tulbul and Sir Creek issues defied solution. Yet starker was the failure to resolve the Siachen dispute--an issue eminently amenable to solution for more than a decade. With such poor results to show, New Delhi and Islamabad return to the old, familiar matrix of mutual suspicion and hostility. The only sign of hope is that the two have agreed to meet again in February. The talks' failure spells trouble for relations between the two newly-nuclearised adversaries. It also perpetuates imbalances and asymmetries in their relations with the U.S., giving America an unfair advantage over both.

Who is to blame for the failure? There is no doubt that Pakistan was ambivalent towards any negotiations that are not "in tandem" with "progress" on the "core issue" of Kashmir. It was predisposed to be negative. But, equally significant, India's attitude was neither open nor flexible. This became evident on the very first day, when the Tulbul/Wular barrage question was discussed. At its centre was a simple trade-off: India would adhere strictly to the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, and not impound any waters (as planned under the Kishenganga hydel project). Pakistan would in turn accept that the barrage would not reduce flows to the Jhelum flowing into its own territory. Neither offered these trade-offs. The talks collapsed, setting the tone for a dialogue of the deaf--a sure recipe for failure.

In such failures, there are no winners. India lost the chance to buy low-priced semi-processed goods from Pakistan. And Pakistan forfeited likely benefits from trade with India in machinery, tyres, pharmaceuticals, etc. The costliest failure was on Siachen. This raises serious questions about the maturity of the two sides in managing and limiting military conflict which has now acquired a nuclear dimension. This is bad news indeed.

Siachen is the world's most strategically absurd high-altitude war, fought at elevations exceeding 6,000 metres. The dispute, over an undemarcated border beyond a point known as NJ-9842, has defied solution, although this is obviously in the interests of both India and Pakistan. Siachen means the loss of 2.7 men and Rs. 2.5 to 6 crores a day for India. Thousands of our soldiers are being exposed to frostbite, hypoxia and severe mental stress. Pakistan's costs are perhaps a fourth of this. According to Indian army sources, air maintenance for the Siachen operation alone costs Rs. 2.5 crores a day, or Rs. 1,000 crores a year. A Cheetah helicopter sortie costs Rs. 20,000 an hour; it can only carry 25 kg when flying to high altitudes.

Conditions at Siachen are harsh. There is no natural source of water. Many soldiers collapse from exhaustion after walking only a few yards. They have to take grave risks--e.g. falling off cliffs into a ravine--even to do something as routine as defecate. Siachen is proof not of anyone's bravery, but of the expendability and low value of Indian and Pakistani lives.

The Siachen issue was militarised in April 1984 when India, to pre-empt what it claimed was a Pakistani plan to occupy the territory, airlifted troops there. India and Pakistan's claims to territory were not fully resolved by the 1972 agreement on the line of control. The delineation ended at NJ-9842, below Kashmir's northern frontier. Pakistan claimed the LoC runs east to the Karakoram pass and declared it had been in occupation of the area. This LoC extension was unilateral. So was India's announcement that "we have recovered about 5,000 square kilometres... in Siachen. We will not forgo one square kilometre." Both violated the Simla agreement which says "neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation"; differences must be resolved through "bilateral negotiations".

India and Pakistan held five rounds of talks between January 1986 and June 1989 on Siachen. The first four were vitiated by domestic factors, the Afghan conflict and Operation Brasstacks. But the fifth round substantially narrowed differences between them. The two agreed to "a comprehensive settlement based on redeployment of forces". The next day, the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries confirmed this. However, Rajiv Gandhi, for domestic political reasons, suddenly repudiated the accord. The 1992 talks too failed, according to former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit, for domestic reasons. Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao, then preoccupied with the Babri dispute, did not want to run the risk of being charged with having "capitulated" to Pakistan.

Logically, India on November 6 should have restated the core of its own 1989 position, which consisted of six points: cessasion of Pakistan's "cartographic aggression" (that is, its unilateral extension of the LoC); establishment of a demilitarisedd zone; exchange of authenticated maps showing military dispositions on the ground; joint delimitation of a line from NJ-9842 northwards to the border with China, "based on ground realities"; formulation of ground rules to govern future operations; and crucially, "redeployment of forces to mutually agreed positions".

Instead, India proposed a mere ceasefire, prior to talks on other "modalities". But today, a ceasefire cannot be a significant confidence-building or even damage-limiting measure. It only constitutes a trivial step. Many more troops die from frostbite than from firing and shelling. The tone and tenor of the November 6 talks was captured by India's director general of military operations, Lt Gen Inder Verma, who thundered: "This is our... fully in control. We are dominating it. How can you ask us to vacate this position? We don't care either about money or ... casualties... We are going to defend our position on Siachen." This negative attitude put paid to any hopes of an agreement. In effect, New Delhi said it would not sacrifice the advantage it holds as its suffering troops sit at elevations 2,000 feet above the Pakistani positions on the Saltoro Ridge.

Independently of which side is more to blame, it is legitimate to ask, What does India stand to gain by bleeding itself--and Pakistan--to control Siachen? Strategically, the answer is, precious little. The glacier is too far away from the Karakoram highway to matter. There is no direct access to it through a major road from any direction. No other military factors are so weighty as to justify the disproportionate expense in human life, money and materiel. Rs. 2,000 crores a year is no joke. Nor are thousands of casualties. Sensible military leaders have called for an end to this horrible war. Little else explains the Indian stand than a predisposed refusal to vacate Siachen, expressed repeatedly by defence minister George Fernandes.

Persistence of the Siachen impasse has three implications. First, India and Pakistan are engaging in talks without a deep commitment to producing successful, if modest, outcomes through a give-and-take process. It is as if the two were talking largely in response to international pressure, not a desire to succeed. In the Indian case, there is no comprehensive Pakistan policy within which the talks can be located.

Second, the repeated failure to resolve outstanding disputes through bilateral talks is likely to generate a demand for third- party mediation--a proposal India loathes, but will find it increasingly difficult to resist, especially if there is another flare-up in Kashmir between the two now-nuclearised states over and above the 350-plus instances of cross-border firing in the first eight months of 1998 alone (compared to 50 last year).

Most important, a big question-mark hangs over the assumption that India and Pakistan can be trusted to behave responsibly and reasonably in the event of a military stand-off, in particular to avoid a disastrous nuclear conflict. A precondition for nuclear deterrence (a dubious doctrine in the first place) is that adversaries agree on what is in their interest, on just what constitutes "unacceptable damage", and how best to avoid it. The Siachen impasse shows that the assumption is fragile. If the two states cannot agree on something where their mutual interests converge, how can they be expected to wisely tackle hostility, especially its nuclear dimension?

It may still not be too late to rescue the situation. Mercifully, the two rivals have already agreed to meet again in February. It is good that they are at least talking, after six years. But for that gain to be translated into a real achievement, India and Pakistan will have to seriously rethink their strategic and nuclear postures, and their positions on Kashmir. There are few signs of this under the two embattled regimes in New Delhi and Islamabad. Meanwhile, Siachen's meter of destruction keeps ticking, to our collective shame.