The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Army melts Siachen ice
- Subtle softening as talks begin

New Delhi, May 26: The army wants its hold over the Siachen Glacier to be recognised publicly before a path to peace with Pakistan on the hardship frontier is charted out.

But far from being a volley of fire as the defence secretaries of India and Pakistan began talks this morning, the army has actually signalled it is game for conditional peace.

India’s army headquarters is signalling that in line with the Prime Minister’s political directive, it is pursuing a peace agenda with a rider: India should not fritter away on the negotiating table the military advantage it holds on the ground.

Of all the issues governing India-Pakistan talks, it is on Siachen that the army has the biggest say. This is because on the ground in Siachen, it is the only Indian agency that is capable of making a judgement.

“We basically want the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) to be authenticated some way or the other,” army chief General J.J. Singh said just as the defence secretaries of India and Pakistan began talks in Islamabad. The talks through today and tomorrow will focus on Siachen before moving on to the disputed boundary in Sir Creek on the west coast on Saturday.

An agreement on the AGPL “in some way or the other” will immediately lead to a thinning of military presence and reduce the pressure on the armies, the soldiers and their families. India has a brigade-level (about 3,000-plus troops) presence in Siachen that is rotated every three to six months at huge cost to the army, not as much from combat as from the weather. The toll on the Pakistani army, too, is comparable.

The army chief’s articulation of the military standpoint signals a shift of emphasis in India’s position. New Delhi has consistently demanded that the Indian army’s hold over the Saltoro Ridge be authenticated on maps.

The army is now opening options for other ways of authentication ' not necessarily on maps. The rugged Saltoro is the ridgeline above 18,000 feet that abuts the glacier. The 110-km-long AGPL ' an extension of the Line of Control in Kashmir ' runs along the Saltoro over which the Indian army maintains posts and denies access to the glacier to Pakistani forces.

Authentication of military positions, as a former top officer has suggested, can be with satellite images, aerial surveillance, use of ground and aerial sensors and/or periodic physical verification.

The Indian army’s reason for seeking authentication of held positions is simple: should there be a transgression of any agreement to disengage militarily, there should be international acknowledgement that it was India that was in possession of the Saltoro Ridge and the Siachen Glacier.

General J.J. Singh said the army had made its recommendation to the government before the defence secretary left for Islamabad.

In the context of the ceasefire along the Line of Control and in Siachen that has held since November 2003 and also in the backdrop of talks between Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf in New Delhi last month, the prospects of peace in Siachen have never been brighter.

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