The 49 mile long Siachen Glacier forms part of the watershed that separates Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The Indian Army has been deployed on the commanding Saltoro Ridge since 1984. The line of deployment is known as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). India and Pakistan appear to be currently negotiating troop reductions in Saltoro. The agreement might entail a redemarcation of the ground position. It is difficult to assess the proposed deal as the negotiations are being conducted in stealth.
M.K Narayanan, National Security Adviser to the Manmohan Singh administration indicated that India and Pakistan were about to reach agreement on the mutual reduction of troops and troop withdrawal in Siachen. In contrast, the Indian Army Chief of Army Staff, General J.J. Singh has expressed concerns that "We have conveyed our concerns and views to the Government and we expect the composite dialog between the two countries will take care of all these concerns" and added that "demilitarization is not on the horizon"
The United States might have facilitated discussions on the vexed subject. It is in American interest that Indo-Pakistan relations improve so that the strategic objectives of the United States can be better met in the extended region. Any settlement on Siachen should not compromise India's long term interest to ensure a corridor to Central Asia. India needs to retain its presence to prevent further consolidation of the Sino-Pakistan axis across the Karakoram pass.
This is not to deny the value of mutual troop reductions in Siachen. The current deployment of troops is not cost effective. However, the rumored redemarcation of the AGPL (even if accepted by Pakistan) is not in India's interest. Writing in the Asian Age, former Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Vijay Oberoi says that "while the Indian Army is not averse to vacating the AGPL, if the nation so desires, but wants that what it secured with great effort and many sacrifices, and which it has held safely for the nation, in the face of enemy action, as well as the severity of the climate and the treacherous terrain, for the last 22 years, should not be sacrificed at the altar of expediency, merely to notch up one more CBM towards the ephemeral peace process". He added that "if India withdraws from Saltoro and Pakistan captures it, the situation then becomes irreversible".
Nehru had erred in "conceding" ground control over Baltistan and Gilgit to Pakistan in 1948. That terrain had enormous geopolitical significance given its proximity to Central Asia. Mrs. Gandhi recaptured Kargil - one of three districts of Baltistan - in 1971. India occupied Siachen in April, 1984. Pakistani troops under a certain Brigadier Musharraf unsuccessfully endeavored to undo this in 1987 and in 1999. Recall that before the Kargil aggression of 1999, Siachen was an unoccupied zone since 1949 with the positions of LoC clearly delineated as per the 1972 Simla Agreement. Yet the Pakistani Army had no scruples in violating these borders. There is a good reason not to trust them today since the mastermind of that war is still the ruler of that country.
There are reports that India might even drop its insistence on marking a AGPL in Siachen before withdrawing to show its 'eagerness' for the peace process during Prime Minister's upcoming visit to Pakistan in July. This is an unwise move devoid of strategic considerations. It is in India's long term interest to annex the restive region of Baltistan when Islamabad is preoccupied with domestic insurrections and Beijing focused elsewhere. Any compromise on the line of control could foreclose future options. Moreover, New Delhi can not forego its de jure claim on the territory.
The reported deal benefits Pakistan. Pakistan currently has 80,000 troops stationed in Balochistan to crush an insurrection there. It has another 80,000 troops tied down in the North West Frontier Province/Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Its military is stretched and it needs to urgently redeploy troops. Islamabad now requires a stable eastern frontier to tackle domestic issues to its west. India can use this to leverage better terms. For one, it should not concede on the line of control in the Siachen segment. While Pakistan would find this difficult to accept, India is not pressed for time.
The lack of transparency vis-a-vis the current negotiations is disturbing. India is a democracy where the executive is held accountable to the elected legislature. The authorities in New Delhi need to take Parliament into confidence on an issue of such importance. The Government must realize that its only constituency is the local one, not foreign interests.
Subhash Kapila, India: Government set to repeat strategic blunder of Aksai Chin in Siachen?,South Asian Analysis Group, 2006.
Vishnu Makhijani, From Haji Pir to Siachen, it is deja vu for the Indian Army , IANS, 2006.