WASHINGTON — Imagine waging a miniwar at 21,000 feet, where temperatures touch minus 40 degrees, and where altitude sickness and frostbite have caused as many casualties as bullets and artillery rounds. That's what India and Pakistan have been doing for the past two decades in a remote area of disputed Kashmir known as the Siachen Glacier, the world's largest outside the polar regions.
Few contend Siachen has any strategic value, but it has been important as a symbol of the unremitting hostility that has existed between India and Pakistan, neighbors who have fought three wars and added nuclear weapons to their military options.
But the dispute across the glacier's 47-mile-long frozen divide on the western end of the Himalayan chain may be thawing, as part of a wider, more comprehensive peace process that has been unfolding between India and Pakistan for the past two years.
The defense ministers of the two countries are scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday in Islamabad. Their instructions, contained in the joint statement issued at the end of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's recent visit to India, are to find a "mutually acceptable solution" to Siachen and to do so "expeditiously."
Three factors augur well for accomplishing that objective. First, India and Pakistan agreed to a cease-fire across the Line of Control, the military line that divides Kashmir, in November 2003. That cease-fire included Siachen, and the guns have remained silent since. Second, the two sides nearly reached an agreement to resolve the dispute over a decade ago, to include a phased troop withdrawal and demilitarization. As a former Indian foreign secretary puts it, all that's needed now is "to dust off the old ideas and take them forward."
But the most important factor pointing toward a possible breakthrough on Siachen is the fact that the two countries are now in the midst of their longest-running - and most hopeful - effort to normalize relations in their history.
At their mid-April meeting in New Delhi, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf watched their national teams play a long-anticipated cricket match. Pakistan won but "cricket diplomacy" is proving to be a winner for both countries.
The joint statement issued at the end of their discussions said the two leaders have "determined that the peace process was now irreversible." They agreed to pursue further measures - like the bus service that began April 7 connecting the two capitals of divided Kashmir - "to enhance interaction and cooperation." This will include more meeting points for separated families, trade, pilgrimages, and cultural exchanges. India's Singh says "soft borders" will create the right climate for a final Kashmir settlement, which both leaders said they are committed to achieve.
Most important, Singh and Musharraf pledged they "would not allow terrorism to impede the peace process." As The Economist pointed out, this is "a striking promise, implying both that Pakistan is distancing itself further from 'freedom fighters' in Kashmir, and that India is not going to react to every terrorist attack as if it were an act of Pakistan aggression." This pledge, in short, gives the current peace process a real chance to succeed.
Unfortunately, that pledge is being tested. In recent days, a car bomb in a business district in Srinigar, the capital of Indian-held Kashmir, and a grenade explosion at a school there killed several people and injured nearly 100. While the Indian press reported that a "pro-Pakistan militant outfit" claimed responsibility for the first terrorist act, Pakistani press accounts attributed the attacks to "freedom fighters."
But if the unfolding peace process between India and Pakistan is able to withstand such challenges, what is to become of the Siachen Glacier?
A creative solution has been offered by South Asian conservationists. Concerned by environmental degradation and loss of life, they have proposed that the glacier - source of the Indus River, a key resource for both India and Pakistan - be converted into an ecological peace park, jointly maintained by both nations without reference to territorial boundaries. Both countries already have high-altitude natural reserves. Moreover, the concept of peace parks is not new.
Today there are some 140 trans-frontier parks on the borders of about 100 countries.
Perhaps the time has arrived for the world's highest battlefield - the Siachen, which means "place of roses" - to be added to that list.
• Karl F. Inderfurth served as US assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs (1997-2001) and is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.