Pakistan and India are strange neighbours. Their relationship is deeply grounded in mistrust. On the onset of a typical crisis, the bilateral mechanism to manage such events collapses almost instantly. Anticipating the entanglement, regional and extra regional well wishers start flocking in to keep the two antagonists apart. Thanks to these good offices, the war has been averted a number of times. The recent private-public visit by Pakistani President was an interesting event. The composition of the delegation indicated that it had an official dimension too. To keep the expectations manageable, a two-facade mix and match was worked out.

The visit of this level was the first in the last seven years. It commenced on the heels of a human tragedy caused by a massive avalanche that had hit a Pakistani military camp in Siachen, which left 124 army personnel and 11 civilians buried alive. An announcement of a pull out of respective militaries from the glacier could have a befitting gift to the two nations. However, Pak-India relations are too complex to be swayed it seems, even by a human tragedy of this magnitude. The two leaders settled by exchanging one frail prisoner each.

Both the countries have gotten used to an interesting pattern and profile package in the context of their bilateral interactions. They work meticulously for years to build a rapprochement framework, or at least an aura of it; then something happens and things are back to square one - generally, a near war situation.

The cycle then reengineers itself under the pressure of compulsions to stay engaged. Under the fear of domestic backlash, leaders from both sides restart through somewhat shying encounters on the periphery of international diplomatic venues, then graduate to meet under the cover of sports, cultural or religious events. Political oppositions of both the countries remain too eager to blame respective governments for a ‘sell out’ without really specifying the commodity. Dr Manmohan Singh was about to lose his job after his meeting with Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of NAM summit at Sharm El-Sheikh. However, this time it was an enabling political environment; the opposition political parties of Pakistan had wished the President of Pakistan good luck before the visit and the Indian leader of opposition joined him for lunch.

One major setback to bilateral relations came as a result of Indian invasion of Siachen in 1984, a glacier that had been respected as a “no man’s land” since independence. Siachen was invaded to pressurise Pakistan amidst the most dense and intense phase of the Afghan war of independence against the erstwhile Soviets. Soon after, it was followed by massive military deployments, all along India-Pakistan border, under the garb of military exercise “Brass-tacks”. Presumably, both these actions were executed by India on the behest of Soviets. During those days, India used to be too happy to play proxy for Soviets. Like these days, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan also, India was on the wrong side of popular Afghan aspirations.

Siachen was considered so irrelevant piece of land that the Simla Agreement, while drawing the Line of Control, did not consider it significant enough to demarcate the territory beyond the map coordinate known as NJ9842. The Indian armed forces crept into Siachen in 1984 and moved on to the Saltoro Range to the west. Realising that India had come so close to Skardu, Pakistan too sent its troops up to the Saltoro Range. A misplaced adventure by the Indian army to climb up an undemarcated glacier and to hang-on there sowed a powerful seed of mistrust that has been a cause of later happenings like Kargil.

Moreover, unprovoked Indian invasion of Siachen resulted in the activation of highest battle ground of the world. Until the ceasefire in 2003, Siachen remained one of the world’s most tense battle zones, where the Indian and Pakistani armies confronted each other over the disputed territory for over two decades. Siachen is 20,000 feet above sea level. The Indian and Pakistani troops have fought there in temperatures of around minus 60 degrees Celsius. Ever since Siachen’s occupation by India, both counties have exposed their troops to environmental hardships; more have died or have been maimed because of inhospitable climatic conditions than due to direct military combat. India has incurred higher human and economic cost of maintaining a garrison at Siachen.

It is unfortunate that despite numerous efforts by Pakistan over the previous several years, the Siachen issue could not be resolved and troops from both sides are suffering; though everyone has been saying that it should be resolved. A tentative agreement has already been worked out.

Pakistan did not start this conflict. India moved into the area and occupied the higher peaks on the Saltoro Range. India aggressed; its military should not have been at its present location. Pakistan has all along been trying to end the conflict; but it cannot do it unilaterally. At the same time, India has no incentive to withdraw. Indian army is the main hurdle; to justify its continued occupation, it tries to attach fairy tale strategic significance to the territory that it now occupies. For any meaningful initiative for durable peace between India and Pakistan, demilitarisation of Siachen could be a starting point. Pakistani side has proposed a solution: the undemarcated areas under the Simla Agreement become zones of disengagement with both sides withdrawing their troops without prejudice to their pre-Siachen conflict positions.

The president’s current visit, although it was not explicitly stated, was about consolidating the recently refreshed confidence building measures (CBM), which have been cautiously embarked upon by the government and non-government entities from both sides. Despite no Indian concessions on non-tariff barriers, Pakistan has ceded a major concession to India by according it the status of Most Favoured Nations (MFN). The business communities of both states had been inching towards a viable framework during the last one year or so. If even playing field is provided by removing the NTBs by India, both India and Pakistan, could benefit mutually from enhanced trade; both have much to sell to one another.

A reciprocal visit by Dr Singh towards the end of this year would help in maintaining the momentum. The short meeting between the two produced a rather comprehensive framework for further movement. All that could be, was mentioned in the Indian Foreign Secretary’s press briefing. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affair’s spokesperson recently commented: “The Siachen is, as you know, already part of the dialogue process. There is nothing new about it. As far as Pakistan is concerned, we have always maintained that all issues between Pakistan and India should be resolved, especially the core dispute of Jammu and Kashmir. That continues to be our policy. All the bilateral issues including Siachen, Sir Creek, are part of the dialogue agenda. We hope that as this dialogue process moves forward, our two countries will be able to move beyond the CBMs because it is important for them to settle these issues and move forward.”

The challenge is to strive towards reducing tensions and resolving as well as managing the conflicts, while understanding clearly that complexities involved in Pak-India relations cannot be simply wished away.

n    The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.