HOME About Blog Contact Hotel Links Donations Registration
NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Courting an elusive Indo-Pak breakthrough

Though Indo-Pak peace talks may appear as listless as ever, the fact that the two have come this far is a tribute the political courage of Singh and Musharraf.

As India and Pakistan expand and intensify their dialogue in the coming weeks, they confront a widening gap between popular expectations for a genuine political breakthrough and the inability of the two establishments to deliver practical cooperation even on relatively minor issues.

For their parts, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have repeatedly signaled strong political commitment to explore solutions to even the most difficult problems like Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, the Indo-Pak peace talks appear listless as ever.

No one in New Delhi or Islamabad was betting that the first meeting of the joint anti-terror mechanism, involving senior security officials of the two sides, in Islamabad during 6-7 March would come up with substantive results.

Singh and Musharraf had agreed to set up this panel last September to promote cooperation in counter terrorism between the two security establishments. Their hope was to move beyond Indian allegations and Pakistani denials on cross-border terrorism towards exchange of information and eventual collaboration against extremist violence that threatens both states.

Given the deep mutual suspicion between the security agencies of the two nations, such cooperation was never going to be easy. This was evident in the wake of the 16 February bombing of a train about 60 kilometers from New Delhi. Despite the huge stakes in a successful investigation into the incident that killed both Indians and Pakistanis traveling by the "friendship train," both sides hesitated on assisting each other.

Top officials from the two Foreign Offices are meeting in Islamabad during 13-15 March to launch the fourth round of their so-called "composite dialogue" that deals with all contentious issues. The two foreign secretaries are expected to do better than the security officials; but only marginally.

Agreements have been pending for a long time on a host of relatively uncomplicated issues such as liberalizing visa regimes and additional military confidence building measures. It is not clear whether the two Foreign Secretaries will manage to clinch the many understandings already at hand.

The current sense of immobility in their dialogue should not obscure the fact that India and Pakistan have made considerable progress since the current phase of bilateral engagement began in January 2004. Never before in recent memory have New Delhi and Islamabad had such an extended peace process.

More sensible developments have occurred between the two nations in the past three years than in the previous quarter of a century. Only five years ago, in mid 2002, the prospect of all out conventional war escalating to the nuclear level seemed a real possibility.

Since the end of 2003, however, a ceasefire has held on the long international border between India and Pakistan and the contested frontier in Jammu and Kashmir.

Many traditional border crossings, including in Jammu and Kashmir, have been opened up for the first time in decades. More Indians and Pakistanis have had the opportunity now to travel across the traditionally closed frontier. Trade volumes between the two countries have picked up, albeit from a low base.

The real surprise, however, has been on Jammu and Kashmir. Reliable reports suggest that a back channel negotiation on the difficult issue between empowered special envoys has been making significant progress. The indications are that Singh and Musharraf have taken personal charge of these sensitive and consequential talks.

That the negotiations on Kashmir are taking place in great secrecy does not necessarily mean they are entirely opaque. The broad outlines of a final settlement on J&K can easily be gleaned from Musharraf's many public remarks in recent months and the few suggestions that have emanated from Singh during the last year.

Five elements are said to constitute the solution that is under discussion in the back channel. These are: no change in territorial disposition in J&K, autonomy/self-governance to both Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of the state, open borders, a cross-border consultative mechanism among the people of J&K, and troop reductions coupled to an end to cross-border terrorism.

That there is an Indo-Pak convergence on this broad template for Kashmir does not necessarily make the negotiations any easier. While India and Pakistan are talking about the same ideas, translating them into actionable agreements remains a complex exercise. Sequencing of various steps, too, is always a problem in such a negotiation.

Nevertheless, the fact that India and Pakistan have come this far is a tribute the political courage demonstrated by Singh and Musharraf. Until now it has been conventional wisdom that no leader in either New Delhi or Islamabad would risk a serious negotiation on Kashmir.

In defying this logic, Singh and Musharraf have already courted charges of a "sell-out" on Kashmir from their respective political flanks on the right. They are aware, however, that every positive movement in Indo-Pak relations over the last decade found expansive public support.

The challenge for Singh and Musharraf now lies in finding ways to expeditiously consolidate the unprecedented progress on the Kashmir question. The last time India and Pakistan negotiated on Kashmir seriously was way back in 1962-63.

The danger for the two leaders lies in the reality that Indo-Pak relations have always been accident-prone. Failure to act quickly could see the irretrievable loss of the rare moment at hand. Maintaining the momentum at the political level is essential to prevent the two bureaucracies from killing the prospect through inaction and nitpicking.

C Raja Mohan is a professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
Web IntelligenceSummit.org
Webmasters: Intelligence, Homeland Security & Counter-Terrorism WebRing
Copyright © IHEC 2008. All rights reserved.       E-mail info@IntelligenceSummit.org