Over a 100 Pakistani soldiers and a dozen civilians lie buried under thousands of tons of snow at Gyari, near Skardu in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This tragedy seems to have finally brought home to the Pak military leadership the futility of being at the most forbidding place on earth.
During April 1984, there were reports that the Pak army was geared up to occupy the Saltaro Range. Indian army realising the dangers of this move, preempted Pak army move and occupied this mountain range.
Some Indian defence analysts have tried to project the Siachen Glacier as an area of great strategic importance. To the west of it (across the Saltaro Range) is the road linking Gilgit with Tibet and to the north east is the important Karakoram Pass. To the north is the Shaksgam Valley (part of J&K) ceded to China by Pakistan. It’s often contended that Siachen Glacier region would facilitate link up between Pakistan and China, across the Karakoram Pass.
Gilgit Tibet Road is nearly 250 kms across the world’s most forbidding terrain. Karakoram Pass from the Glacier is across a group of first magnitude peaks in the world, which only a small mountaineering expedition can hope to traverse. The Shaksgam Valley across the Indra Col and the Karakoram Range is inaccessible from the Glacier region. The route to the Karakoram Pass emanates from the Nubra valley and away from the Glacier. Another route is along the Shyok River along the Shyok Valley. Pakistan (PoK) is linked with China along the Gilgit-Tibet road.
The terrain/climate along the Saltaro Range is forbidding where often soldiers die for want of immediate evacuation. The cold, fear of being afflicted by high altitude sickness and the impossibility of being evacuated has a depressing psychological effect. Indian troops have endured these hardships for 28 years with stoicism and forbearance.
Of late there have been renewed attempts to improve relations with Pakistan. Both sides seem to realise the futility of maintaining a hostile attitude towards each other. The policy of exporting terrorism to India has finally recoiled on Pakistan itself. This push to terrorism and unreasonable expenditure on defence has left its economy in dire straits.
The last attempt to resolve the issue faltered on demarking the positions on maps, held by the two sides, before troops could be withdrawn and area declared demilitarised. Pak army did not agree to this. Perhaps due to the fact that the Pak public has been made to believe its army is in part occupation of Siachen Glacier. Marking map positions would have exposed this lie. Further, Indian army has reason to suspect that once positions on the Saltaro Range are evacuated, Pak may occupy these and the cost in lives in taking them back will be enormous.
Past experience has made this mutual suspicion run deep. Pak feels that it was cheated out of Saltaro Range in 1984 by India and India has Kargil as a constant reminder of Pak perfidy. But it’s time to move forward. Valuable lives have been lost to terrain and climate.
India has lived under the impression that Pak’s defence policy is spelled out by its army and also its relations with India. Perhaps jolted by the latest tragedy at Gyari, Pak army appears to realise the wisdom in accepting ground realities. General Kayani appears amenable to a resolution of the Siachen Glacier problem. Here perhaps is an opening to get to grips with the Siachen issue and work out a lasting solution of this problem.