Friday, February 11, 2011

India-Pakistan talks: read between the lines

Analysis: It's official. New Delhi lost the stalemate.

By Jason Overdorf
(February 11, 2011)

NEW DELHI, India — Nominally, India and Pakistan agreed to resume [2] high level peace talks Thursday.

But in reality, New Delhi bent over backwards to give in to Islamabad before the proposed negotiations even begin — by granting the Kashmir dispute equal status on the agenda with the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

So how did India go from refusing to talk to begging for talks?

New Delhi believes that it has no choice but to talk eventually and surmises that the anger over the Mumbai attacks has faded enough over the past two years to make a resumption possible. Meanwhile, with the expected drawdown and eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on the horizon, India may believe that a magnanimous stance today could help it to negotiate a stronger post-conflict role for itself in Kabul.

"I think it was necessary for us to discuss Afghanistan ... ," Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna [3] told reporters in New York Thursday, according to the Times of India newspaper. "India has been playing a very positive role in trying to build Afghanistan in terms of our volunteers who have gone there for capacity building and so I think Afghanistan had to be included," the paper quoted Rao as saying.

Unfortunately, what's more likely is that resuming the dialogue will just give Islamabad — which is wary even of India's limited present role in Afghanistan — another chance to run circles around India's negotiators.

Already, India has agreed to discuss a whole range of issues, including Pakistan's claims to territory in Indian-administered Kashmir, which will inevitably remove the focus from Pakistan's alleged support of terrorist groups that attack India.

At a 90-minute meeting between Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meeting in Thimphu, Bhutan, on Sunday, the two countries agreed to a series of secretary-level meetings to discuss, among other issues, confidence-building measures like cross-border bus services, the dispute over Sir Creek (between India's Gujarat and Pakistan's Sindh province) and Pakistan's desire to redraw the borders of Kashmir.

"The reality is that India and Pakistan cannot afford to turn their backs to each other, that they must engage in dialogue which is, as I said, serious and sustainable and comprehensive," Rao said in a televised interview on Thursday, when the substance of the Sunday meeting was disclosed.

It's taken two years, but that's a pretty big flip-flop.

Once, India claimed it would not resume normal diplomatic relations until Islamabad cracked down on terrorist groups operating with impunity in Pakistan and began a vigorous prosecution of the alleged perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. That vigorous prosecution never happened, of course. But as the United States proved unable to exert any pressure on Pakistan and instead began pressuring India to return to the negotiating table, New Delhi swiftly went from refusing to talk to begging to talk.

To make matters worse, China stepped up to back Pakistan's military shadow government. And events like the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer for opposing Pakistan's blasphemy laws — which suggest that Pakistan's radicals are gaining ground — have convinced India that it has no choice but to backpedal. Playing hardball, the logic runs, will only give Pakistan's hardliners more room for saber-rattling — and more credibility on the street. If it wasn't clear before, it is clear now: India has lost the stalemate.

"Any rational observer would say this is not the time to nourish much hope on moving forward on substantive issues," said former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. "But on our side they feel that vacuum is not in our favor and by not talking we would be giving up whatever little hope there is ... of stemming the rise of these radical forces and giving some backing to those who wish to normalize relations with India — especially Pakistani civil society."

But preventing Pakistani hardliners from playing the India card comes at a cost. The presumption that Qureshi will visit India in July to review the progress made by the two countries' foreign secretaries over the intervening months underscores the impression that India must woo Pakistan, even to merit a visit from its foreign minister. And it's far easier to make friendly noises now — when Indian-administered Kashmir enjoys a predictable winter lull in separatist protests — than it will be when Srinagar inevitably heats up for the summer.

At the last meeting between Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers last July, for instance, when Srinagar was rocked by bloody riots over the killing of civilian by Indian security forces, Qureshi sandbagged during meetings with Krishna in Islamabad. Then Qureshi undermined any possible gains at the post mortem press conference by equating a top Indian official with Hafiz Saeed — the Pakistani radical whom India believes masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and whose continued freedom and influence in Pakistan is a major impediment to better relations.

Indeed, if past talks are any indicator, nothing is likely to emerge from more dialogue. Though talking with Qureshi does grant Pakistan's democratically elected government an added stamp of legitimacy, in order to make progress India needs to negotiate with the real center of power in Islamabad — Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who heads the Pakistani army.

Moreover, Manmohan Singh's government is in a weakened position domestically, and recent revelations about the involvement of Hindu terror cells in the bombing of a "Friendship Express" train between Delhi and Lahore — in which 42 Pakistani citizens were killed — has undermined India's previous position of moral superiority.

"The jury is still out on these talks," said Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly. "Any progress, will necessarily be extremely slow and incremental. The level of distrust in India is too great and the PM is too weak with the opposition in an uproar about multiple [corruption] scandals."

By caving into Pakistan's demands up front and allowing Kashmir and "all outstanding issues" back on the table, India has essentially admitted that it has nothing to negotiate with. The threat of war is an empty one (thankfully), and generous aid from an opportunistic China and a fearful United States renders India's economic clout meaningless.

"The stick we have we can't use, and the carrot that the Pakistanis want [Kashmir] we can't give them," said Sibal.

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