Nudging India and Pakistan towards peace

September 13, 2008

Barricade of burning tyres in Srinagar/Fayaz KabliOne of the more recurrent themes in U.S. political punditry these days is the need to nudge India and Pakistan towards peace. The theory is that this would bolster the new civilian government in Islamabad by encouraging trade and economic development, reduce a rivalry that threatens regional stability, including in Afghanistan, and limit the role of the Pakistan Army, whose traditional dominance has been fuelled by a perceived threat from India.

So what are the chances of progress? (assuming the latest bombings just being reported in Delhi do not trigger a new downwards spiral)

President Asif Ali Zardari has got everyone talking by promising that there will soon be “good news” on Kashmir. An expected meeting  between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Zardari on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month would also give the two leaders the chance to repair relations soured by the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July.  

It seems unlikely however, that India and Pakistan can make any real concessions on Kashmir, at a time when the people of the Kashmir Valley at the heart of the dispute have renewed their protests against Indian rule. In Pakistan this would be seen as a betrayal of the people of Kashmir, while in India the government would be accused of caving in to the protests.

Nubra valley, on the road to Siachen/Pawel KopczynskiOne alternative would be to try to resolve the dispute over Siachen, an idea revived this week by Zardari , as a way of building trust and creating an atmosphere to make progress on Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have fought for control of the mountains overlooking the Siachen glacier since 1984, although there has been a ceasefire since 2003. Apart from the troops stationed on the world’s highest battlefield, there is nothing there but snow, ice and rocks (believe me, I’ve been there), and many commanders on both sides have long accepted the region has no strategic value.  Siachen, in the Karakoram mountains, is quite geographically distinct from the Kashmir Valley — it would take you three days to drive from the Kashmiri capital Srinagar to the Indian base camp in Siachen, and then only if you were lucky — and it is a far less explosive issue to tackle.  What has been lacking is the trust and political will to agree a mutual withdrawal.

Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi came tantalisingly close to reaching a deal on Siachen in 1989 when they were young prime ministers seeking a fresh start for the region. With both now assassinated, it will be interesting to see whether their widowed spouses now in positions of power — Zardari in Pakistan and Sonia Gandhi in India as head of the ruling Congress party — try to complete what they started. 

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