The origins of the Siachen problem can be traced to the Simla agreement of 1972. That agreement demarcating the Line of Control between India and Pakistan did not demarcate where the line of control went and simply stated that it went “North”. This left a great strategic ambiguity as to whether “North” meant North or if it really meant East, thus creating confusion as to whether Siachen Glacier belonged to Pakistan or India.
Even in the presence of this ambiguity, there was relative peace between 1971 and 1979, when Pakistan was busy with coups and hangings. After taking charge in 1978 through a peaceful coup, Zia-ul-Haq wanted to repair the image of Pakistan army severely dented in the 1971 war. To make up for losing 57,000sq miles of East Pakistan, Zia wanted to capture the 1000sq miles of Siachen, where there was no deployment of either Indian or Pakistani soldiers (Siachen is a icy waste where not a single blade of grass grows just like Aksai Chin, which also has nothing except strategically important passes connecting Tibet). Pakistan started giving licenses for mountaineering expeditions for tourists. In accordance with the tradition of gracious subcontinental hospitality, each of these expeditions were accompanied by representatives from Pakistan army and supplied by helicopter. Coincidentally, the terrain and logistics routes were also mapped. Simultaneously, the Indians were playing cricket in Antarctica to practice getting acclamatised to the cold. But an all out war on Siachen would have to wait. The reasons were two fold: (1) The treacherous Indians, in a display of ungentlemanly behaviour, had attacked across the international border as a retaliation for Pakistan attacking across the line of control in 1965. Indians did not limit the war to the line of control respecting the strategy drawn up by Pakistan’s generals to keep the war limited. So any war on Siachen had the potential to flare up as a major border war (2) Pakistan did not do very well in a major border war and could win only a silver medal after coming in second in that competition.
1984 brought the Nuclear test at Lop Nor in China. Co-incidentally, for presumably unrelated reasons, Pakistan gained the confidence that a conflict along the undemarcated line of control would not flare up into a larger border war. Preparations were made for another mountaineering expedition into Siachen by buying Arctic gear from a shop in London, which was unfortunately run by a RAW agent, who promptly informed the Indians. This set off a race to Siachen, where Indian soldiers and Pakistani soldiers trekked to Siachen, but Indians beat the Pakistanis by 4 days. Yes, all of 4 days. A war followed. In those heights, fighting consisted of not dying in the cold air or lack of oxygen and the side which did not freeze to death won. Indians with their short, dark bodies required less food and oxygen, (each Pakistani soldier on the other hand, needed the food and oxygen of atleast 8 Indian soldiers) survived longer and won. The Indians advanced all the way upto the Saltoro ridge west of Siachen glacier and occupied the 3 major passes into the glacier — Sia La, Gyong La and Bilafond La — thus completely cutting off all approaches to the glacier and and making it impossible for the Pakistan army to even reach Siachen.
Which leads to current status of Siachen problem where India has all of Siachen and Pakistan has a problem with it.
Several attempts were made to dislodge the Indian Army, the most ferocious in 1987 by the then Brig. Gen. Pervez Musharraf who had raised a SSG unit in Khaplu for mountain warfare. The attack proved futile and led to a huge loss of life on the Pakistani side and in a subsequent counter-attack Indians captured even more territory. Musharraf subsequently turned his attention to Gilgit and won a major war against the Pakistani Shias in Chitral, killing hundreds. Buoyed by this victory, Musharraf returned for a major assault in 1989 on Siachen but it fared even worse than the 1987 assault. Readers would know that Mushrraf would later go on to become COAS and to complement his bigger rank, distinguish himself by losing in a bigger way in Kargil, but would eventually win in the 1999 war in Islamabad. The Islamabad war consisted of an assault by the forces commanded by General Musharraf on the forces commanded by Ameer-Ul-Momineen Nawaz Sharif. That short war involved precise military maneuvers to capture PTV headquarters, an assault on the airport, capturing all the roads leading to the Parliament and the eventual capture of the Parliament itself, leading to the unconditional surrender of all Senators, MNAs, the Judiciary and the Constitution. Losing against India but winning against Pakistan seems to be Musharraf’s speciality, but I got ahead of myself.
Subsequent intermittent attacks till the mid 90’s were futile as well, which led to one logical conclusion: Siachen could not be won by attacking Siachen, Indian supply routes to Siachen would have to be cut much further south, somewhere along the demarcated line of control. But this war had to wait. A war across demarcated Line of Control (as opposed to war across the actual ground position line or AGPL) had the potential to flare up as a major war across the international border and … well you get the idea.
1998 brought the nuclear tests by India as well as Pakistan. Co-incidentally, for presumably unrelated reasons, Pakistan gained the confidence that a conflict along the demarcated line of control would not flare up into a larger border war. (The Lop Nor tests only gave the confidence that conflict along the undemarcated line of control would not flare up into a larger border war. This has to do with deep strategic reasons involving just having a nuclear bomb vs having a weaponized nuclear bomb). A mountaineering expedition of Mujahideen who were fighting for freedom against Indian oppression in Kashmir occupied the Indian positions in Kargil during the winter* and threatened the Indian supply lines to Siachen, leading Musharraf to brag (actual quote)
‘I have a Stinger on every peak…we shall walk into Siachen to mop up hundreds of dead Indians in the cold’
While the freedom fighters had full moral, political and diplomatic support from Pakistan army, they had only weak artillery support and worse, they committed a major blunder of not securing complete air support. Thus they were ultimately beaten back, mainly due to Indian air and artillery attacks. Ten years later in 2009 after Musharraf was sent packing, it was discovered by COAS Kayani that they were not Mujahideen at all but belonged to the Northern Light Infantry. Why they called themselves Mujahideen and how exactly they were oppressed by India in Kashmir is a mystery to many to this day. Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail has a few thoughts for everyone vis-a-vis the importance of air support in Kargil while freedom-fighting and you can read it in his blog, but I digress.
Subsequent events of 9/11, a bad economy, Americans in the region, and military build up by both India and Pakistan meant that Siachen issue could not be solved by military adventures, leaving no option but to solve it using talks. Which leads us to the present day:
Pakistan should convince India that Siachen is taking a heavy toll on both sides, consuming valuable money and resources, which could be better spent on Ballistic missiles, Artillery and Nuclear bombs which both India and Pakistan desperately need. Repeated attacks aimed at recapturing Siachen has caused casualties on both sides. The men fighting a futile war in Siachen could be redeployed to fight a futile war elsewhere — in Balochistan, Swat or even Gilgit where the Shia problem still persists. But the talks are at a deadlock: To withdraw from Siachen, India has started to place demands that Pakistan should validate the Actual Ground Position line agreeing that North is in fact North, and not East**. This is unacceptable to Pakistan, especially because if North is in fact East, the Karakoram pass connecting to Tibet falls under Pakistan’s claim. But if the North is in fact North, then all attempts by Musharraf would have gone in vain. More importantly, the all weather friends may not be pleased that Pakistan gave away a pass into Tibet to India. So in many ways, Siachen is about the territorial integrity of China, about which there can be no compromise by Pakistan.
So the conflict endures in the face of obstinacy by both sides, where Pakistan’s principled position stands as firm as the mountains and Indian’s hearts are as cold as the Siachen glacier. This problem can only be solved in some non-rocky non-icy place — the warm sandy beaches of Thailand by track-2 participants.
* Before Kargil it used to be the case that Indian and Pakistani soldiers retreated to warm base camps during winter. Now thanks to Kargil, they man their posts in the cold all year round, even in winter. On the positive side, the soldiers report that Siachen does not feel much more cold and miserable when compared to the Kargil heights in winter.
** This demand is meaningless. Even after agreeing where the Line of Control was, the NLI/Freedom Fighters/Mujahideen occupied Indian camps in Kargil. So it is absurd to assume that agreeing on AGPL in Siachen is a guarantee against NLI/Freedom Fighters/Mujahideen occupying the Saltoro ridge. So why make this demand anyway?