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How a glacier could thaw dangerous India and Pakistan freeze

Following a deadly avalanche in the disputed Siachen Glacier area, India and Pakistan have signaled openness to talks. A priority must be to demilitarize 'the world's highest battle ground' at Siachen, which incurs substantial economic and human costs for these two nuclear rivals.

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Now in the wake of the avalanche, Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is calling for demilitarization, an opportunity that must not be missed by India. The cost of deploying battalions in the region runs in millions of dollars each year for the two impoverished nations.  

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Yet both states maintain their military status quo to defend a 50-mile long icy wasteland. India and Pakistan have each recognized that defense expenditure in Siachen does not justify its lack of strategic advantage. But they also need to account for the financial, social, and psychological costs for the families of the snow warriors, most of them junior soldiers, in the calculus.

While settling the claims on Siachen may not happen very soon, demilitarization is an actionable option. In 2005, Indian Prime Minister Singh had expressed hope for turning the glacier into a peace mountain. Indian and Pakistani mountaineers and environmentalists have also called for the possibility of converting the region into a civilian zone or peace park.

Such an initiative could potentially transform the battlefield into a jointly managed conservation area serving a threefold purpose: to preserve the environment, to help build peace, and to generate revenue through ecotourism.

Settlement of inter-state territorial disputes present challenges, but the dividends of cooperation for India and Pakistan would be immense, particularly in terms of greater regional and global stability. There is also a strong precedent for joint military disengagement: One took place at the Chumik Glacier in 1989, close to Siachen.

Another hopeful sign is that the two militaries have largely upheld the 2003 cease-fire. Joint aerial and on-site inspections could make demilitarization a viable option especially if facilitated by the UN, sponsor of the 1949 cease-fire agreement.

Unresolved territorial disputes have led India and Pakistan to conventional warfare in the past. But the addition of nuclear weapons in the security landscape makes their standoff more precarious than ever.

Given the implications of their tenuous relationship, it is time for a paradigm shift in strategic thinking in India and Pakistan. And Siachin could help break this deadlock.

Saira Yamin is associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of APCSS, the US Pacific Command, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.


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