Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the futility of peace talks

It's hard to speak out against peace. So when Manmohan Singh defended himself Wednesday over a foreign policy snafu in Egypt that everybody from the opposition to backstabbers within Singh's own Congress party had been calling a “sellout” to Pakistan, I was prepared to be convinced. Singh is a good guy. He's smart. And he's not the sort who shouts and carries on to gain political mileage.

For those of you outside India, the snafu resulted over a joint statement that was issued after Singh met his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, where Singh agreed to resume so-called peace talks with Pakistan and appeared to agree to discuss the borders of Kashmir and admit to Pakistan's charges that India foments unrest in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

Most people read the blunder as more evidence that India's foreign policy department—despite lots of talk that the US wants to offer India a bigger role on the world stage—simply isn't ready for prime time.

Some of the things that Singh told Parliament in his defense made sense, but I'm still wondering about India's decision to resume the so-called “peace process” with Pakistan. And I'm still completely positive that the wonks in charge of Indian foreign policy are groping blindly in the dark—knowing neither what India's role in foreign affairs should be, nor what stance they will take on the US, China, Russia, Pakistan, etc, nor how they might achieve their goals if they managed to define them.

The essence of the PM's speech was twofold. One, Pakistan had provided him a dossier outlining the evidence against the Pakistani terrorists involved in the Mumbai attacks which was more extensive and damning than any proof India's old enemy has offered before in this slow-and-tired dance around the issue of the “proxy war” Islamabad has waged against India for decades. This, Singh says, was enough to convince him that Pakistan is sincere in its efforts to rein in groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which strike India from bases on Pakistani soil. So India's attitude must be “trust but verify.” Two, there is really no alternative to dialogue, because it's a question of resuming peace talks or moving inexorably toward war.

Sound convincing? Maybe.

But I'm not sure either point is valid. To Singh's first point, Pakistan's arrests so far have not been too impressive, and some of Islamabad's actions and public statements have appeared to be obfuscations and excuses for inaction, rather than progress reports. To his second point, the opposition of resuming the peace talks and returning to war is a false dichotomy. In fact, India was not at war with Pakistan between 1999 and 2003, when the so-called peace process began, and the two nations have not been at war since India halted the process after the Mumbai attacks. Nor, quite frankly, has it seemed that they are slipping ever closer to shots fired in anger. It appears more likely to me that both nations have concluded that full-scale war is not an option.

And that begs a peculiar question: What are the India-Pakistan peace talks meant to achieve?

Neither side is shooting at the other. From the Indian side, negotiations of the borders of Kashmir aren't on the table, and never will be. And from the Pakistan side, giving up claims to India-administered Kashmir is also an impossibility.

Is the sole purpose of the talks, then, to induce Pakistan to stop supporting terrorists that attack India?

In that case, they seem more like peace begging than peace negotiations. There's no carrot, and there's no stick. All that's under discussion are a few meaningless bus routes across the border and a useless cross-border trade that a senior Kashmiri journalist told me recently “benefits no one.”

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