Back to square one

Until military-strategic issues such as Sir Creek and Siachen are resolved,there can be no forward movement in Indo-Pak relations

Until military-strategic issues such as Sir Creek and Siachen are resolved,there can be no forward movement in Indo-Pak relations

The latest round of peace initiatives between India and Pakistan may have given the people on both sides some hope regarding improvement in bilateral relations,but any forward movement is likely to remain restricted for some more time. Trade and other issues are likely to take precedence over areas of military-strategic importance such as Sir Creek,Siachen,water and Kashmir. Recently,the talks on Sir Creek were postponed when Pakistan requested them to be rescheduled to June,after the talks on Siachen.

The resolution of military-strategic issues between India and Pakistan is a different and hard ballgame. Their relationship is akin to the game of chicken in game theoretic modelling,in which both sides wait intently for the other to blink. Islamabad and New Delhi are known for losing opportunities for peace in the expectation that the other side might make concessions. This is also accompanied by a constant fear that the absence of any positive offer from the other side may result in some provocation.

The only possible change in recent times is the seemingly gentle delinking of trade from the reactionary policymaking mode. All else,however,remains dependent on the other’s response. It is a popular notion that Sir Creek is one of the most solvable issues. Indeed,Sir Creek,Siachen and an agreement on avoiding incidents at sea were mentioned in the Lahore Declaration. At that time,a general understanding was that Siachen could also be resolved. The Pakistani understanding,based on the accounts given by diplomats,is that the two neighbours had come close to resolving Siachen in the early 1990s but it could not happen due to objections from the Indian defence establishment. This,in fact,is the popular narrative and understanding of the issue across the border. More importantly,Siachen graduated to a higher level of becoming a difficult issue to resolve,along with Kashmir,due to a number of reasons,including the Kargil operation.

The question here is,can one expect forward movement in an environment of low trust-high suspicion? From Pakistan’s perspective,army chief General Ashfaq Kayani took the major initiative of drawing India’s attention towards the need to de-escalate tension in Siachen. In fact,he tried to send a signal about his intent for peace by taking the Pakistan correspondent of The Hindu,Anita Joshua,to Gayari (the site of the avalanche at Siachen’s base that killed nearly 140 Pakistan troops last month) with him to see the Pakistan Army’s desperate efforts to recover the men it lost at those heights. The general may not have managed to rescue his men but no one can doubt the significance of his media blitzkreig. He seems to have thrown the ball in India’s court and now the expectation is that New Delhi must give the general something to chew on. The international community will notice the “positivity” of General Kayani’s gesture.

Nonetheless,the initiative comes at a time when Kayani is at the end of his second innings as army chief. In hindsight,even Pervez Musharraf made gestures to India at what turned out to be the tail-end of his career as the army chief and president. Subsequently,it was said that the army was not behind him in his act of abandoning the UN resolution as the basis for resolving Kashmir. The other important dimension is that these overtures are made at a time when the government in New Delhi is not at its peak. Giving the rising unpopularity of the Congress government,India’s prime minister,Manmohan Singh,may have his heart at the right place but may not have the clout to offer a solution on Siachen or Sir Creek.

This means we are back to square one,a point where Islamabad will hope for some positive gesture from India and link this with positive movement on Sir Creek. The tragic undertone of both issues is that it has an ignored human dimension to it that will get further ignored and sacrificed for military-strategic reasons.

It is worth wondering if decision-makers on both sides ever think of the men who are sacrificed year after year at those unforgiving heights,or the poor fishermen who get captured for crossing an imaginary line in the sea as they go out in search of their livelihood. Sir Creek may be important strategically for many reasons,including exploration of the continental shelf,but its human dimension is the most important story that has and will continue to get ignored at the highest levels. At this point,there is little possibility of any resolution on the issue. The game of chicken continues.

Note: This article originally published here.