Opinion: India and Pakistan talk about talks

NEW YORK — The Feb. 25 meeting of the top diplomats from India and Pakistan will be closely watched even though little is expected from the meeting itself.

Foreign secretaries from South Asia's nuclear-armed rivals are set to meet in New Delhi for the first official talks since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. The attacks, traced back to the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba based in Pakistan, prompted the Indian government to break off all official talks with Pakistan until Islamabad dismantled its "infrastructure of terror" and brought those responsible for Mumbai attacks to justice. But in an about-face earlier this month, India reached out to Pakistan to explore a resumption of dialogue.

At best, the Thursday meeting is expected to lay down the framework for future talks between the two countries.

While the talks signal a positive move in this volatile relationship and are infinitely better than not talking, significant hurdles remain. For starters, India and Pakistan fail to agree on what they should talk about: Pakistan would like India to resume the composite dialogue that discusses all outstanding issues between them such as Kashmir, boundary disputes at Sir Creek and Siachen and water-sharing but New Delhi has a single priority — terrorism.

The latest terrorist attack, a day after the announcement of the talks, in a bakery in the western Indian city of Pune makes this discussion ever more urgent in India's view. Indian columnist Siddharth Varadarajan argues that India's strategy of "no talks" hasn't brought it much in the way of results so now New Delhi is hoping to use engagement as a lever. But for this, he writes, India will "have to bring something more to the table. ... In particular, it will have to demonstrate that there are tangible benefits for Islamabad from the meaningful dialogue which would logically follow the restoration of confidence and trust."

Moving beyond the differences over immediate agenda, a sustainable dialogue for peace is also dependent on the domestic situation in both countries. Indian foreign policy expert C. Raja Mohan at a recent Asia Society meeting says "public opinion in India on Pakistan can be volatile." Raja Mohan points to the hyper-reaction in India to a July 2009 joint statement between the Indian and the Pakistani prime ministers at the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit meeting in Sharm el-Sheik.

The statement that sought to delink Pakistan's action against terrorism from more comprehensive India-Pakistan talks was seen by many in India as "capitulation" or "selling out" to Islamabad. In Pakistan, unstable civil-military relations and the army's control over the country's foreign policy on India, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, makes it unclear for outside leaders as to whom they should be talking to.

Most recently, uncertainty over whether future Pakistani governments will honor current agreements with India have raised questions for peace talks. This was prompted by the unclear fate of the back-channel diplomacy between the two countries that had reportedly made tremendous progress on the decades-old dispute over the territory of Kashmir. First reported by New Yorker's Steve Coll, these secret negotiations between Indian and Pakistani officials from 2004 to 2007 had taken place under former Pakistani President and army chief General Pervez Musharraf. Earlier this month, Pakistan's current foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi denied any such efforts.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is Afghanistan. Some news reports put down New Delhi's about-face in talking to Islamabad as a result of international pressure especially from the United States, but some analysts believe last month's international conference in London to discuss Afghanistan was the game-changer.

At the conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plan to reintegrate members of the Taliban into society received strong support, including from the United States. Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid at a recent Council on Foreign Relations meeting said the Indians, shocked by the international community's readiness to engage with the Taliban, have been pushed into talks with Pakistan."The idea of talking to the Taliban is anathema to India, because it would simply mean for India that Pakistan would get a huge say in a future Afghanistan," he says.

India and Pakistan both see influence in Kabul as essential to their strategic interests and as the date for U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan nears, the competition between India and Pakistan may make it unavoidable that the two add Afghanistan to the lengthening list of disputes they must resolve.

History teaches us any dialogue between India and Pakistan remains hostage to the next episode of escalation in tensions. A series of starts and stops characterize talks held so far — at several points in the last decade, the relationship took a turn for the worse; Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999, the December 2000 attack on the Indian parliament, and the 2008 strikes in Mumbai. As a prominent Indian politician Mani Shankar Aiyar, an advocate of the talks, told a television channel, these talks are "doomed to fail if we do not make it a long persistent, uninterrupted and uninterruptible process." Yet the question many will be asking is "what happens when there is another major terrorist attack on India that points evidence to Pakistan-based militants?"

Jayshree Bajoria is a staff writer on Asia for CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.