Indian, Pakistani op-eds show signs of softening

December 30, 2008

After a month of hurling insults across the border over the Mumbai attacks, newspaper editorials in both India and Pakistan are softening their rhetoric and asking — still quietly and tentatively for now — whether the two countries might perhaps be able to sort it out.

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, in an editorial headlined “War hysteria abating on both sides” welcomes a report that India is not setting a timeframe for Pakistan to act against the groups it blamed for the Mumbai attacks. “There is always a risk of exaggerating the prospects of peace breaking out between India and Pakistan, just as there is that irrepressible tendency to overplay the fear of war lurking round the corner,” it says.  But it adds: “At the moment all the pointers from New Delhi raise hope. Or, shall we say, they don’t look bleak?”

The Daily Times goes further, arguing that with the threat of war receding, Pakistan must act against anyone launching militant attacks outside its borders and collaborate actively with India to pursue anyone found to be involved in Mumbai.

“The world wants us to do what we know we have to do to survive as a country. We have to take in hand the war against the foreign and local terrorists and in doing so we have to eliminate those who strike across our borders and endanger the security of our neighbours in the region,” it says. “There is no doubt that we have to collaborate with India and earnestly pursue the punishment of anyone found to be involved in the Mumbai attack. The international community that has pressured India to back off today will be relentless in its insistence that we do what we have pledged to do.”

Perhaps the most interesting op-ed comes from India, where The Hindu asks why the Pakistani security establishment made no effort to disrupt elections just held for the state assembly in Jammu and Kashmir. (The polls had a turnout of more than 60 percent, despite a boycott call by separatists.)  The absence of interference contradicted a prevailing assumption in India — although not one articulated officially by the government — that Pakistan’s ISI spy agency and its powerful military had been involved in the Mumbai attacks, it said.

It was possible, the newspaper said, “that the absence of violence (in Kashmir) was the result of Pakistan’s active cooperation with an Indian request made several months earlier, and that the Mumbai attacks were orchestrated by Pakistan-based terrorists without the involvement of the ISI.”

“According to this narrative, the motive of Mumbai was to disrupt an emerging back-channel understanding between the two countries and increase tension to the point where some of the military pressure being brought to bear on the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border might be relieved. Whatever the truth, the fact is that Pakistan’s decision to lay off the Assembly elections for its own reasons has been an unexpected bonus for the Indian government. It has created a more favourable terrain for New Delhi to pursue a solution to the Kashmir problem, both in its domestic manifestation and in terms of its bilateral context. Provided, of course, the two countries are able successfully to ride out the present crisis by acting decisively against the terrorists responsible for Mumbai.”

That’s quite a big olive branch coming from the Indian media, matching the talk of collaboration in the Pakistan media. But is the mood shifting enough for the two governments to get their peace process back on track?

History suggests it can go either way.  Fraught relations between India and Pakistan are still vulnerable to a second big militant attack, like the assault on an army camp in 2002 which — coming five months after an attack on the Indian parliament — nearly propelled the two countries into all-out war.  Yet India and Pakistan have also been capable of surprising the outside world with successful back-channel diplomacy, as they did at the end of 2003 when they agreed a ceasefire in divided Kashmir — a ceasefire which has more or less held through the current tensions and which remains the most tangible gain from the post 2001/2002 thaw.

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