Now India and Pakistan Can Get Down to Business: WSJ Op-ed

Now India and Pakistan Can Get Down to Business

High-level talks in February, billed by some as a failure, actually set the stage for progress.
By Najam Sethi, Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2010

On initial appearances, the first high-level bilateral talks between India and Pakistan since November 2008 weren't a success. When the two foreign secretaries convened in New Delhi on Feb. 25, at times it was as if they were at different meetings. The Indians tried to focus on terrorism sponsored from within Pakistan, while the Pakistanis wanted a broader dialogue. In the end, there was no noteworthy result. But appearances in this case are deceiving. This meeting is likely to prove more successful than many expect.

That's because interests on both sides are at last correctly aligned to give talks a shot at success. For India, it has been a matter of reaching several conclusions at the same time. First, New Delhi has failed to browbeat Islamabad into steps like cracking down on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group responsible for the Nov. 2008 Mumbai attacks. Indian saber rattling alone hasn't done the trick, just as in 2002 when India's armed forces tried but failed to intimidate Pakistan into halting the flow of jihadis into the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.

At the same time, the United States has been pressing New Delhi to reduce tensions along the Pakistani border. Washington hopes relative stability along Pakistan's eastern border will allow Islamabad to focus more energies on securing its western border with Afghanistan. Given these circumstances, negotiating with Pakistan over outstanding disputes—and the trust-building and enhanced security that might ensue—looks like a smarter approach than what India has been doing up to now.

Meanwhile, a dialogue with Pakistan is now politically possible in India. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sincerely wants to make a "breakthrough" in bilateral relations and he's increasingly confident saying so. During the elections last year, Mr. Singh trumpeted his efforts to promote back-channel diplomacy for conflict resolution during the tenure of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Controversially, he also met Pakistan's current prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, at Sharm al Shaikh in Egypt on July 16 last year to formally pledge a wide-ranging dialogue.

In Pakistan, too, there seems to be a significant shift in foreign policy, as formulated by the powerful military establishment. For the first time since 9/11, the American and Pakistani militaries and intelligence agencies seem to be working closely together to stem the tide of al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Far from casting doubt on the Pakistani military's motives and abilities, the Americans are tripping over themselves praising the Pakistan army. The Pakistanis have subdued the al Qaeda Taliban network over most of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, though at the great cost of more than 2,500 soldiers, including one officer for every seven soldiers killed. As a result of this and other successes, the U.S. has offered Pakistan a greater future say in Afghan affairs.

All of this has brought home to Pakistan's leaders the benefits of being a team player in the region—benefits such as support from the U.S. and greater stability in the western regions. A working relationship with India will be more important as Afghan reconstruction continues, given that India has made over a billion dollars in investments in Afghanistan and thus is an important stakeholder. With militants set to be a problem in the west for the foreseeable future, Islamabad also has an interest in stabilizing its relationship with its eastern neighbor.

Despite the forces pushing and pulling both sides to the table, talks won't always go smoothly—last month's attempt shows some of what can go wrong. India doesn't want to seem like it has succumbed to "terrorist blackmail" without extracting some concrete results from Pakistan, and Pakistan doesn't want to seem like it is begging India from a position of weakness to change the status quo. So neither side can afford to reach an agreement on anything "too quickly." In addition, neither wants to admit any American pressure to change its policies. This may partly explain why the recent initiative failed to produce any results: On the eve of the talks, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton admitted a role in nudging both sides to the table.

But in other ways there are signs that both sides have learned from the mistakes of the past. Earlier attempts faltered because neither side had laid the political groundwork back home for any eventual deal. The Sharm al Shaikh meeting last year, for instance, was not preceded in India by any media briefings that might have set the stage for a change in course. Indeed, at that time Mr. Singh's eagerness for talks was like a red flag waved in front of anti-Pakistan bulls like his own national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, and prime ministerial adviser Shyam Saran. This time, Mr. Singh has brought in a new security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, with extensive experience in Pakistan affairs. Mr. Singh's re-election campaign itself has also shown that the politics of this issue are changing in India.

In Pakistan, too, the signs are good. For the first time in history, the government and opposition are on the same page regarding the necessity of burying the war hatchet with India. The ruling Peoples Party led by President Asif Zardari, widower of the assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto, has always espoused the case of peace with India, even at the cost of sometimes irritating the military. And now the opposition led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, is on board as well. Mr. Sharif is the architect of the Lahore summit in 1999 with former Indian prime minister Atal Vajpayee, when both sides agreed to hold wide-ranging talks unconditionally. In the old days, Pakistan used to put pre-conditions on the talks—such as requiring a solution to the Kashmir dispute before anything else—but now insists that all issues should be on the table at one time.

Against this backdrop, the ball is rolling again. The Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao is expected to visit Islamabad later this month, followed by the Indian home minister in April. Then the two prime ministers will meet in Bhutan at the end of April at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit. These occasions will doubtless provide adequate opportunity to pave the way for a formal resumption of talks on most issues.

There are obvious exchanges to be made between India and Pakistan. India must stop aiding Baluch insurgents based in Afghanistan and Pakistan must cease supporting jihadis against India. Pakistan must relax the trade regime for India's exports. India must resume support for the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Both must demilitarize border areas and allow greater flow of people between the two countries. And both must find a way forward of Kashmir.

These issues and many more will take time and trust to resolve. So it should not be surprising if the most recent India-Pakistan meeting wasn't an enormous success. The more important fact is that the two sides are now closer to being able to hash out their differences than in recent memory.

Mr. Sethi is editor in chief of The Friday Times, a national weekly, and Dunya TV, a national news channel in Pakistan.

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