Hopes low, stakes high when Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers meet

July 12, 2010

thimphuPerhaps one of the most telling features on the media commentary ahead of a meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in Islamabad this week is the lack of it. Expectations could hardly be lower.

Part of that is the nature of the actors involved. In India, policy towards Pakistan is set by the prime minister’s office, not the foreign ministry. So External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna is not in a position to deliver the kind of breakthrough that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh achieved at a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani when both agreed at a meeting in Thimphu, Bhutan in April to try to find a way back into talks broken off by the November 2008 attack on Mumbai. In Pakistan, the army retains a tight grip on foreign and security policy, limiting in turn the kind of concessions that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi might make.

Part of the low expectations come too from the very limited agenda set for the talks - to work out ways of  reducing the huge trust deficit between the two nuclear-armed rivals. Or as the Indian foreign ministry described it in a terse statement on its website:

“In pursuance of the mandate given by the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, during their meeting at Thimphu in April, 2010, to the Foreign Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of both the countries to work out the modalities of restoring trust and confidence in the relationship, thus paving the way for a substantive dialogue on issues of mutual concern, Hon’ble External Affairs Minister, Shri S.M. Krishna will visit Pakistan from July 14-16, 2010 for bilateral discussions at the invitation of H.E. Mr. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

And they come too from a long and weary history of two countries which have tried, and repeatedly failed, to settle differences dating back to the partition of the subcontinent by departing British colonial rulers in 1947 – and indeed even before that when warring political parties wrangled over whether Muslims needed the protection of a separate homeland or whether they could achieve their political aspirations in a united India.

Over the years, any number of forums and formats have been tried out to find a way towards peace. There’s the formal peace process, known as the Composite Dialogue, broken off by India after the Mumbai attack blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, and yet to be resumed. There’s informal “backchannel diplomacy” – secret talks between special envoys held away from the glare of the media – which came near to a breakthrough on Kashmir in 2006-2007. Then there are “Track Two” talks – conferences held by intellectuals, politicians and retired military officers from India and Pakistan acting in a private capacity without the endorsement of their governments to try to seek common ground.

And equally, over the years, any number of proposals for peace have been put forward, from the “solve-Kashmir-first-and-the-rest will-follow” school of thought to incremental measures like increasing trade, relaxing visa restrictions and improving people-to-people contact in order to build enough confidence to start tackling the more contentious issues.

In the middle of those two approaches, are suggestions that India and Pakistan should try to resolve one of their conflicts which are substantial, but less emotional than the dispute over Kashmir – for example by ending the conflict fought over control of the mountains above the Siachen glacier in the Karakoram mountains since 1984.   That in turn would provide enough of a breakthrough to justify a peace summit between the leaders of the two countries and provide the momentum for intensive talks on resolving Kashmir.

Each one of those options has been tried (India and Pakistan had a tentative deal on Siachen as early as 1989); and each one of them has failed – often because some external event got in the way, from a big militant attack, to a change of government, to a major geopotical upheaval like the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year. So what will it take to break that logjam?

At your most pessimistic, you might conclude that both countries tend to make more progress towards peace after major crises. A near-war between India and Pakistan in 2001-2002 led to fresh talks and a ceasefire on the Line of Control dividing Kashmir in 2003 – one that has more or less held to this day. Even the 2008 Mumbai attack led, after an Indian election won in the middle of last year by the Congress party, to a fresh burst of diplomatic activity which eventually dissipated again into mutual recrimination.

If you wanted to find a historical parallel, you might argue that it took two world wars for France and Germany to settle their differences.

Yet neither India nor Pakistan can afford now to wait for a crisis to happen.  Over the last couple of years, Pakistan has faced its biggest existential challenge since 1971 (when then East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh); facing a wave of bombings which are gnawing through the country’s heartland Punjab province. Whatever else India might wish on Pakistan, it does not want to see its neighbour disintegrate in ways which would make Islamist militancy even harder to control, and bring the war in Afghanistan right up to its own borders. Add to that the dangers of all-out war between two countries with nuclear bombs, the missiles to deliver them, and a tendency to be over-complacent about how well they know each other — and therefore to misjudge each other’s red lines – and you have the potential for disaster that would make the nine-year Afghan war look like a sideshow.

The foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of India and Pakistan have been working hard behind the scenes to pave the way for the talks between their foreign ministers.  More recently, they will have had to work out how to stop the latest flare-up in violence in Kashmir from souring the mood. We will find out this week whether they have come up with an imaginative way forward. Or whether the low expectations are justified. 

(Reuters photo:  Indian and Pakistani prime ministers in Bhutan)

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