NEW DELHI // India and Pakistan are moving swiftly to resume bilateral talks that stalled after the Mumbai attack in 2008. The Indian foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, extended an invitation 10 days ago to her Pakistani counterpart, Salman Bashir, who immediately accepted. "Pakistan is expected to get back to us with some mutually convenient dates," said Vishnu Prakash, the spokesman for the Indian ministry of external affairs.
Talks could begin before the end of the month. The South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) yesterday cancelled its February 26-28 meeting in Islamabad, freeing up those dates for a first discussion. "It is just a matter of a few days, maybe next week that the dates and venue will be mutually agreed upon," said a spokesman for the Pakistani ministry of foreign affairs, Abdul Basit.
New Delhi stressed that this is a new initiative. Sources said India wanted a fresh slate, and that it was not planning to resume the so-called "composite dialogue" that ended with the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Pakistan had a different interpretation. "Our position is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel," Mr Basit said. "The process already existed in the form of the composite dialogue. If these talks can lead to the resumption of the composite dialouge in a meaningful and result-oriented way, then we welcome them."
Mr Rao discussed both dates and an agenda in a 45-minute discussion with the Pakistani high commissioner, Shahid Malik, late on Friday in New Delhi. India is known to want to discuss counterterrorism initiatives, while Pakistan wants to discuss Kashmir. Initial contacts, however, are more likely to focus on confidence-building measures, such as ways to enhance bilateral trade and tourism. "We are looking to discuss all relevant issues under contention as well as all other issues that will contribute to peace and stability between the two states," an informed source in New Delhi said.
"We are going into these talks with an open and positive mind. Let us not prejudge the outcome." US leaders called for renewed India-Pakistan talks in testimony before the US Senate last week, with Adm Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling for talks on Kashmir. "As part of our long-term regional approach, we should welcome all steps these important nations [India and Pakistan] take to regenerate their 'back channel' process on Kashmir," Adm Mullen told the Senate's armed services committee.
Violence erupted again last week in the disputed territory, with the capital city of Srinagar under curfew after a 14-year-old boy was killed when he was hit on the head by a tear-gas cannister during protests against Indian occupation. Adm Mullen said mutual "animosity and distrust" between Pakistan and India were hampering US efforts in the region; Pakistan is accused of failing to move forcefully against militants associated with Kashmir, even though it continues to work with the United States to control militancy along the Afghan border.
Leon Panetta, director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, warned the Senate intelligence committee that militants associated with Kashmir may soon launch another "spectacular" inside India, similar to the Mumbai 2008 attacks. "A particular concern is Lashkar-i-Taiba, which, if it should conduct an attack against India [in the next few weeks], could very well undermine our efforts in Pakistan," Mr Panetta warned.
Kabul is now seeking talks with the Taliban, which might allow the United States to draw down its military presence in Afghanistan; both Pakistan and India have a strong interest in the country. But some analysts warned that the situation has deteriorated beyond the point where talks on Kashmir could help. The Taliban controls 90 per cent or more of Afghanistan, is "very strong" and is not motivated to talk peace at this point, said Syed Saleem Shahzad, a South Asia analyst with direct Taliban contacts.
Militants are now planning to extend the conflict to India, he said. "This situation is going beyond old issues. It's now in the hands of al Qa'eda and the militants, and Mumbai is a good example of how the militants are desperate to take this war into India," he said. "The minute Afghanistan is resolved or there is a restoration of the Islamic Emirate, al Qa'eda and the extremists will go straight in the direction of India - India will be their immediate target."
Mr Syed warned that the situation is moving beyond the control of individual states, which in itself should be sufficient reason to unify the efforts of Pakistan and India. "There is a need for states like Pakistan and India to have harmony on issues and tackle militancy together," he said. "These non-state actors are not friendly to any state or government. So it's a common threat for all states."
New Delhi refused to respond militarily to the Mumbai attacks, but is not expected to show similar restraint in the case of a future attack against India. With a solid coalition and an experienced and respected prime minister, New Delhi is prepared to launch talks with Pakistan on a whole range of issues, including Kashmir. The Pakistani side, however, is less coherent, analysts say. The country's US-trained chief of army staff, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, is due to retire this year, along with Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the head of the Inter Services Intelligence directorate.
Mr Pasha and Gen Kiyani together stabilised Pakistan throughout the departure of the previous president, Pervez Musharraf, and renewed calls for prosecution on corruption charges of the current president, Asif Ali Zardari. Moreover, it was largely due to the close personal ties between Gen Kiyani and Adm Mullen that the Pakistani and US militaries had worked well together over the past two years. "Kiyani is a lame duck, and Pasha is not his successor," said Steve Coll, the president of the New America Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "The practical consequence is that the Pakistani government is divided and internally competitive, so it's not clear who can deliver an ambitious negotiation that would stick, or how the government would organise itself to negotiate in a united front."
email@example.com * With additional reporting by Salman Masood in Islamabad