Pakistan, India send in their professional diplomats to break the stalemate

February 25, 2010

raobashirThe foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, meeting in New Delhi to end a diplomatic freeze which followed the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, did what they were expected to do — laid out all the issues which divide the two countries and agreed to “keep in touch”.

Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, India’s top diplomat, focused on what India calls “cross-border terrorism”. India also handed three new dossiers of evidence to the Pakistani delegation, including one on Hafez Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, who New Delhi accuses of masterminding the Mumbai attack. Pakistan had said it did not have enough evidence to prosecute Saeed.

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir said both countries were victims of terrorism but that dialogue should not be held hostage to a single person or single incident. In a news conference after the talks he stressed the need to reach a settlement on Kashmir, to resolve territorial disputes over the Siachen and Sir Creek regions and to improve cooperation over the sharing of Himalayan river waters.

He also raised India’s role in Afghanistan, saying it was using its presence there to provide money and funding to militants to destabilise Pakistan. India denies this.

But despite their widely different views on what should be on the agenda, there was little suggestion of rancour during the talks, which Bashir described as a genuine attempt to bridge differences. Both Rao and Bashir are seasoned diplomats with long experience of the many ups and downs of the relationship between India and Pakistan.

The next step to watch is whether Rao now travels to Islamabad for a further round of talks.  No dates were announced. The prime ministers of the two countries will also have a chance to meet at a regional summit in Bhutan in April.

Progress will be slow. India and Pakistan have yet to agree even on what format their talks should take. India is believed to have some doubts about the usefulness of the composite dialogue – a formal structured process meant to cover all areas of contention — and broken off by New Delhi after the Mumbai attack.  Bashir appealed against discarding the composite dialogue,  which been the foundation for many years of negotiations, complaining that if this were relegated, there would be no starting point for future discussions.

So there will be no early breakthrough, especially not over Kashmir — the issue that has divided the two countries since independence in 1947.

But with events now beginning to move rather rapidly in Afghanistan ahead of the 2011 deadline set by President Barack Obama for starting to draw down U.S. troops, India is under some pressure to regain the initiative there. It invested heavily in development in Afghanistan after the fall of the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 2001 and built close ties with the government of President Hamid Karzai.  It has now found itself caught on the back foot, supporting a weak government in Kabul while much of the talk which followed last month’s London conference on Afghanistan has been on reconciliation with the Taliban.

Pakistan, meanwhile, appears to have gained favour with the United States by working more closely with it, and U.S. officials have presented the arrest of Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi this month as evidence of this new cooperation.

So it’s worth watching closely how India and Pakistan position themselves on Afghanistan — particularly in the light of claims and counter-claims that each country tends to use it as a base for destabilising the other.  And with the 2011 deadline looming, U.S. pressure on the two countries to improve relations may well focus on that shorter-term goal of trying to stabilise Afghanistan rather than the much longer-haul project of nudging them into making progress on Kashmir.

A while back, many analysts argued that the road to peace in Afghanistan ran through Kashmir.  The quickening timeframe for the Afghan war suggests there is no longer the time for such a lengthy detour. Now it runs through Kabul.

(Photo: Foreign Secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir/B.Mathur)

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