India and Pakistan – yet again, past is prologue

June 22, 2010

raobashirGiven the row over General Stanley McChrystal’s comments in Rolling Stone magazine, the slow process of repairing relations between India and Pakistan is unlikely to get much attention. But there is some movement there, which is worth watching closely since the relationship between the two plays such a defining role in the attitudes of the Pakistan Army and by extension, in Pakistan’s perceived approach to Afghanistan.

Following up on talks between their prime ministers in April, the foreign secretaries and interior ministers of India and Pakistan meet this week in Islamabad to try to rebuild trust between the two countries and find a way back into more substantive dialogue.

India broke off the formal peace process, the so-called Composite Dialogue, with Pakistan after the November 2008 attack on Mumbai and sporadic efforts since then to resume dialogue have been stuttering at best. 

But since the start of the year, India – which had insisted it would not resume talks until Pakistan acted against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for Mumbai – has shown some softening in its position.

Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, the country’s top diplomat, said earlier this month all issues were up for discussion, although she also stressed that Pakistan must take action against militant groups.  In a speech to a conference organised by the Delhi Policy Group she referred to progress made both in the Composite Dialogue and in informal backchannel diplomacy to resolve the Kashmir dispute – comments which were interpreted as an indication of India’s hopes of building on the achievements made before Mumbai.

The backchannel diplomacy in particular established a roadmap for peace in Kashmir under which there would be no exchange of territory between India and Pakistan but both would work to make borders irrelevant - a formula which had at least the potential to end a 60-year standoff over the fate of the divided former kingdom.

According to The Hindu newspaper, India wanted to find out whether Pakistan too was willing to build on the gains made in negotiations before 2008.  It quoted official sources as saying that if the civilian government in Pakistan acknowledged what had been accomplished through the backchannel diplomacy and was ready to take that process forward, this would give big boost to trust building. “We have to see if they are willing to do that,” it quoted one source as saying.

That is rather less obvious than it sounds. The roadmap for peace in Kashmir was agreed by former president Pervez Musharraf, and the new civilian government has long been reluctant to pick up where the former military ruler left off.  As recently as May, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi reiterated that Pakistan was returning to its historical stand on Kashmir – demanding the implementation of UN resolutions calling for a plebiscite – after “wavering” by the Musharraf government.

Nor indeed is the civilian government in a position to make the same concessions as Musharraf – any decisions on relations with India would need to be agreed with the Pakistan Army, which retains a tight grip on foreign and security policy.

At the same time, India is unlikely to get early satisfaction on its demand for action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.  Pakistani security officials say the country needs to focus first on fighting Pakistani Taliban militants on its border with Afghanistan rather than opening up a new front in Punjab, where the group is based.

As discussed before on this blog, the two countries might be able to make more progress in narrowing their differences over Afghanistan than in tackling the Kashmir dispute.  Both India and Pakistan are rivals for influence in Afghanistan, complicating the already – and increasingly – messy picture there. Yet both say they have an interest in a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, and both have reasons to be anxious about any early withdrawal of U.S. troops which could destabilise the region further.

Nirupama Rao meets Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir on June 24, and the two diplomats – who last met in February – are then due to prepare for a follow-up meeting between their foreign ministers. Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram is then expected to meet his counterpart Rehman Malik on the sidelines of a South Asian regional conference on June 26.  Dates to watch – if considerably less gripping than “the MacArthur-Truman” showdown between McChrystal and President Barack Obama.

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