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Image: picture-alliance/dpa

World's highest battlefield

June 11, 2012

The Siachen Glacier - 'the highest battlefield in the world' - has been a source of dispute between Pakistan and India for decades. All previous rounds of talks between the nuclear-armed rivals have ended in stalemate.


As fresh talks between the nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India kick off, there is tension in the air.

Ahead of the talks - the 13th round since 2005 - the news magazine India Today asked whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could "give away what the army had already won."

Over and over again, Singh has said he wants to turn Siachen into a glacier of peace. However, although the magazine points out that while an agreement with Pakistan would represent a great achievement for the prime minister it would be at a great cost. Most of the population does not want to return any of the land it won in 1984.

In Pakistan, emotions are also running high. When an avalanche killed 139 Pakistani troops in early April, Pakistan's army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani said the glacier should be demilitarized.

In this July 19, 2011 photo, Indian army soldiers return after a training session at the Siachen base camp, in Indian Kashmir on the border with Pakistan. The nuclear-armed South Asian nations have competing territorial claims to Siachen, often dubbed the world's highest battlefield, and troops have been locked in a standoff there at an altitude of up to 20,000 feet (6,100-meter) since 1984, when Indian forces occupied the glacier. Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries held talks Tuesday against the backdrop of a recent terror attack that killed 20 people in India's financial capital, ahead of the countries' foreign ministers meet Wednesday. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)
India refuses to withdraw troops unless an agreement is signedImage: dapd

After so many failed rounds of talks, many are hoping for a breakthrough this time.

Indian political analyst Amitabh Mattoo is not too optimistic, however. "Relations have relaxed somewhat since Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's recent visit to Delhi and his visit to a Sufi shrine in Ajmer. Dialogue has calmed down. But, if there is one subject that symbolizes the deeply rooted mistrust between the neighbors, it is Siachen."

"When it comes to national interests, no side thinks logically," says Professor Amitabh Mattoo from Melbourne University. "France and Germany also fought over a tiny area in Alsace-Lorraine," said Mattoo, adding, "It is also about public opinion."

Decade-long conflict

The roots of the conflict reach back to when the two states gained independence from Britain in 1947; since when they have fought over Kashmir to which the Siachen Glacier belongs.

In the 1970s and 80s, Pakistan allowed 16 mountaineering expeditions to the glacier, however, as more and more reports emerged that the mountaineers were being accompanied by Pakistani officers, India reacted and launched Operation Meghdoot (cloud messenger) on 13 April, 1984.

It occupied the most important mountain passes and has since controlled two thirds of the glacier.

In his memoirs, former Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf who led an assault to win back some of the passes taken by Indian troops in 1987, says that Pakistan lost 900 square kilometers of its territory. Other sources say India took over 1,000 square miles.

Some 4,000 soldiers are estimated to have lost their lives at the 6,000-meter high glacier - dubbed the highest battlefield in the world. Many troops died at the beginning of the conflict because of the hostile conditions, including temperatures of below 40 degrees Celsius, of illness or in accidents.

Indian troops on the Siachen Glacier
Some 4,000 soldiers are thought to have lost their lives on the glacierImage: AP

'Small gestures count'

The question of whether it is really worth it has been asked again and again. In 2005, the conflict was thought to have cost India 10 billion dollars and Pakistan about three billion less.

Neither country wants to lose face; neither country wants to lose public support. India wants an agreement to be signed before it withdraws any troops; Pakistan wants both armies to return to the positions they had before 1984.

"Of course there is a theoretical solution," says Pakistani political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi from Lahore. "India and Pakistan could both withdraw to where they both were before 1984. The area could be declared as a demilitarized zone." He adds that the zone could be used for scientific and mountaineering purposes.

Indian troops
Each side has about 3,000 troops posted in this hostile regionImage: APTN

It is already important that talks are taking place since the peace process has been slow since the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, he adds.

"We need to solve easy problems first, and Siachen is a difficult one." However, in the end it's the "small gestures" that count, he says.

A joint statement is due to be issued on Tuesday.

Author: Priya Esselborn / act
Editor: Richard Connor

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