Faint hopes for end to the glacier war

  • @arifa_akbar
SAMUEL BECKETT was always vague about the exact locations of his dramas of futility and despair. But if he had wanted to pin down where, say, Waiting for Godot actually took place, he could have done worse than to specify 20,000 feet up Siachen Glacier, somewhere between India, Pakistan and China.

It is one of the most inhospitable and inaccessible places on earth, whipped winter and summer by freezing winds, battered by sleet and snow. Only the most intrepid mountaineer would set his sights on it. But India and Pakistan have been fighting a war on Siachen Glacier for the past 14 years. More than 500 Indian soldiers have died there, and 10,000 have been wounded. Pakistan has sustained comparable losses. Yet there is no end in sight.

Tomorrow, the top defence ministry civil servants of the fratricidal Asian neighbours will sit down and talk about Siachen for the first time in six-and-a-half years. But although the war is widely acknowledged to be absurd, the chances that they will move towards ending it are slim.

The Siachen war is a crazy offshoot of the longer-running but more comprehensible conflict across the Line of Control in Kashmir. The Kashmir war has sputtered on practically since the departure of Britain in 1947; and although the positions of the opposing forces have been stalemated for so long, so volatile are the tempers, so trying the boredom, so temptingly close some of the enemy's positions that people are killed in artillery exchanges across the line practically every day.

But the Kashmir dispute, however horrible and intract-able, is very palpably about something: the destiny of Kashmir. The fight for Siachen Glacier has been called, by one of the Indian generals who started it (retired Lieutenant-General M L Chibber, speaking to the American scholar Robert Wirsing), "a mistake" into which India and Pakistan had "stumbled". Mr Wirsing himself says Siachen has "no apparent military or strategic value". Six years ago, shortly before the last, abortive round of talks on the dispute, an Indian journalist who had spent two weeks there with the troops condemned it as "a diplomatic and military disaster, a waste of such magnitude that it should be graded as a crime against humanity". But the war goes on.

It is debatable who triggered it - whether the American Alpine Journal, the atlas- publishing department of The Times, or the National Geographic Society. Or perhaps (as some Indian officers believe) it was a diabolical conspiracy by the United States Defense Mapping Agency. But whoever was behind it, there is no doubt that it comes down to maps. "Cartographic aggression" is one Indian phrase for it. "Mountain poaching" is another.

When hostilities in Kashmir proper ended - for a time - in 1949, the two sides agreed on a ceasefire line between the advance positions of their respective armies. But beyond the northernmost reach of either army was a distance of some 40 miles before the international border with China. In this area there were no soldiers, so the negotiators simply left the job undone. The ceasefire line, later called the Line of Control, ended at map co-ordinate NJ9842. Beyond that, who could say?

But that old thing about nature and a vacuum holds true for alpinists and map publishers, too, so when in 1974 Pakistan lifted its ban on climbing in the eastern Karakoram Mountains, alpine journals, trekking guides and map publishers proceeded to do the work that the diplomats had left undone.

It was Pakistan that gave climbers permission to scale these peaks, so it was reasonable to assume that the mountains were in Pakistan. An American trekking guide said that the Karakoram Pass "is now the official meeting point of India, Pakistan and China". When an Indian army team traversed the Siachen Glacier, a US climbing journal expressed surprise that they should be there at all, on Pakistani soil.

The international atlases played a part, too. The case of the Times Atlas of the World is the oddest, for it changed its view of where the border ought to go with different editions, without apparent reason; and as far back as 1959 it had accorded Siachen to Pakistan. In the early Eighties, the National Geographic did the same. By 1984, India had had enough. On 13 April 1984, special units of the Indian army were airlifted on to three passes guarding the glacier and, because they had claimed the high ground, the Pakistani commandos sent to dislodge them had no success. A war of attrition on the highest battlefield in history was under way.

India and Pakistan have negotiated over Kashmir for 40 years without moving an inch closer to a settlement. Most discussions, as with the ones concluded in Islamabad last month, consist of each side "restating their respective positions". So ghastly and futile and expensive is the battle for Siachen, that at times during the six rounds of talks held to date there have been glimmers of a solution. Today, however, the prospects are as bleak as the Siachen weather.

This week's talks have been preceded by several clashes on the glacier designed to give one side or the other a stronger hand. India is firm that any possible progress on Siachen can come only as part of a "composite exercise", involving all the issues that divide the two countries. The unlucky soldiers freezing on glacier duty will be there, it is safe to predict, for some time to come.