NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A military standoff at the world’s highest battlefield is the focus of a fresh round of talks between India and Pakistan, and any progress on one of the least thorny issues may give a boost to the tortuous peace process between the nuclear-armed rivals.
Defense secretaries from both countries were meeting in New Delhi on Monday for two-day talks on withdrawing their forces from the mountainous no-man’s land above the Siachen glacier, where they have faced off since 1984.
Both countries have long accepted the need to demilitarize Siachen, located 20,000 feet above sea level, and military experts say the inhospitable climate and avalanche-prone terrain have claimed more lives than gunfire.
This consensus makes Siachen one of the least difficult issues being discussed in a long-running, stumbling peace process India suspended after the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistani-based militants.
Peace talks resumed again this year after heavy lobbying by the United States, and this is the first meeting of the defense secretaries, the top civil servants in the respective defense ministries, in three years.
“Political will is needed to solve this issue. It is not a difficult issue,” Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was part of efforts to revive talks after the Mumbai attacks, told Reuters.
“If this is resolved then it will improve the environment and climate for resolving other issues.”
India and Pakistan have fought three wars so far, and their rivalry complicates Western efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and the South Asia region.
While the divided, mostly Muslim Himalayan region of Kashmir is at the heart of their six-decade-old hostility, India and Pakistan came close to agreement on a solution to the disputes over their maritime boundary at the Sir Creek estuary and Siachen before talks were called off in 2008.
The two sides have been trying to find a solution that would allow them to withdraw troops, but India says it is unwilling to bring its forces down until Pakistan officially authenticates the positions they hold.
Pakistan has said it is willing to do so, but on the condition that it is not a final endorsement of India’s claim over the glacier, one source of meltwater for Pakistan’s rivers.
“Success could be measured in various terms but I would say the real barometer would be any progress over Siachen,” a senior Indian government official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
The strategic importance of the glacier, in the Karakoram range, is debatable, military experts say. Until 1984, neither side had troops there but now there are between 10,000 and 20,000 Pakistani and Indian troops.
India now controls the heights and is loath to back off for fear Pakistan might walk in.
India and Pakistan have long struggled to normalize ties, both deeply suspicious of each other, and experts have warned against a breakthrough on Siachen during these talks.
But Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also staked his foreign policy legacy on improving ties with Pakistan and despite setbacks, including the breakdown of peace talks, he is keen to keep working on ties despite opposition among some leaders in the ruling Congress party.
Pakistan, struggling with its own security concerns, sees India as its biggest security risk. India has in recent years begun to focus more on the risks posted by an assertive China.
Goodwill was generated by a cricket match between their teams in March, raising hopes of progress in their political relations. The killing of Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan by U.S. special forces led only to a modest exchange of diplomatic barbs between India and Pakistan.
But skepticism runs deep.
“I don’t think there will be any progress. If you think the cricket diplomacy is going to help then let me tell you real issues can’t be solved in the context of public relations gestures,” Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary, told Reuters.
Instead, experts says, if the two sides could agree on more contact between their militaries the talks could be deemed as partly successful.
“Even if the two militaries agree to play football or cricket matches in each other’s country that would be a step forward,” Sibal said.
Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Paul de Bendern; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Miral Fahmy