Pune bombing unlikely to derail India-Pakistan talks

February 15, 2010

german bakeryThis weekend’s bombing which killed nine people in the Indian city of Pune — the first major attack since the 2008 assault on Mumbai — is unlikely to derail plans for the foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of India and Pakistan to hold talks on Feb. 25.

The Hindu newspaper — which is well-informed about the thinking in the prime minister’s office where India’s policy towards Pakistan is decided — says there will be no rethinking about the planned talks

“India has no intention of allowing terrorists to dictate the scope and schedule of diplomatic interaction with Pakistan and will not let Saturday’s bombing of a bakery in Pune derail the February 25 meeting of foreign secretaries, highly placed sources told The Hindu,” it says. “With investigations into the attack still under way, officials said on Sunday there would be no ‘knee-jerk reaction’. India knows the situation is complex, they added.”

Indian officials have been circumspect about who was behind the bombing. Early candidates are the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) accused of masterminding the Mumbai assault (for a factbox on the group see here) and the Indian Mujahideen, an indigenous group with close ties to both the LeT and the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

According to The Hindu’s Islamabad correspondent, the Jamaat ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of the LeT, had specifically mentioned Pune as a target during rallies across Pakistan on Feb. 5 to mark the annual “Kashmir Solidarity Day”.  Media reports also suggest that American David Headley — whose arrest last year in Chicago on terrorism charges led to renewed fears of LeT attacks on Indiahad visited Pune on reconnaissance missions.

That said, the bombing appeared to have been a relatively simple operation — a bomb left in a bag in a cafe – and in contrast to the sophistication of the Mumbai assault, could easily have been carried out by local operatives without outside help.

But the grim reality — and this is hard to write without thinking about the very real victims of the Pune bombing — is that it does not change the overall picture of the India-Pakistan relationship.

India, which broke off peace talks with Pakistan after the attack on Mumbai, has decided that coercive diplomacy has run its course and is trying to find a way back into dialogue. Yet as discussed here, the two countries will find it hard to make much headway on their core dispute over Kashmir. Time has moved on, and Pakistan is no longer in a position to offer the kind of concessions it made under former president Pervez Musharraf to reach an agreement without risking a backlash at home.

The United States and its allies are focused on turning around the war in Afghanistan just enough to create the conditions for a political settlement that will allow them to start drawing down troops in 2011. Such is the resistance of public opinion to the war that they have abandoned the idea of  a long-term “grand bargain” under which India-Pakistan talks might have created the space for a complete rewriting of the Afghan war.  We are now at the stage of “muddling through” in ways that might — or might not – create stability in Afghanistan, while avoiding any massive surgery on the regional dynamics.

India and Pakistan may yet find a way out of the quagmire that has held them since 1947 — in the many private Track Two initiatives between the two countries, the utopian faith still thrives. The two governments are experienced enough to find a way forward, but they are also susceptible to being tripped up by western governments whose publics want a quick end to the Afghan war.

The tragedy – for the dead and wounded — is that the Pune bombing will make little difference to how those competing influences play out.

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