x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

India and Pakistan peace talks edge closer

The two countries are edging closer to resuming peace talks after being on the brink of reigniting hostilities following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan and India are edging closer to resuming peace talks after being on the brink of reigniting hostilities following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November. But analysts and diplomats said the two nuclear-armed rivals have a long way to go even before troops are pulled back to peacetime positions along the Indian-Pakistani border. Pakistan's president, Asif Zardari, made diplomatic overtures this week when he told European Union officials in Brussels: "I do not consider India a military threat; the question is that India has the capability. Capability is what matters. [With regard to] intention, I think we both have our good intentions.

"India is a reality, Pakistan is a reality, but the Taliban are a threat, an international threat to our way of life. And at the moment, I'm focused on the Taliban." India suspended a peace process, begun in 2004, after the attacks by Islamist militants on its commercial hub, Mumbai, seven months ago. India says Pakistan-based militants were involved in the assault but Pakistan denies any state agencies were involved.

Since the Mumbai attacks, Pakistani and Indian troops have been deployed in readiness for war along the border. "Mr Zardari's statements do not mean that Pakistan will withdraw its troops from the border. For this to happen there has to be a reciprocal action by India," said Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political and defence analyst. "He meant that although India may represent a long-term threat, the immediate threat is from the Taliban."

However, Washington has been working hard to bring the two countries together to ease tensions along the border and free up Pakistani troops to take on the Taliban on its north-western frontier with Afghanistan. The country's senior officials met for the first time since the attacks when Mr Zardari met the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Group meeting in Russia last week.

Mr Singh embarrassed Mr Zardari when, in front of news television cameras, he said: "I am extremely happy to meet you, but my mandate is limited to telling you that the territory of Pakistan must not be allowed to be used for terrorism against India." However, senior officials from the two countries are due to hold further talks to exchange information on terrorism soon, while political leaders are expected to meet in July.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has confirmed she would visit India and Pakistan next month. On June 9, Mr Singh told India's parliament it was in his country's vital interest to retry to build peace with Pakistan and said New Delhi was prepared to walk more than half way if Islamabad would accept its share of the responsibility in the partnership. Under its former leader, Pervez Musharraf, and Mr Zardari, Pakistan has come close to abandoning its historic claim to Kashmir.

In 2003, Mr Musharraf suggested both sides demilitarise the Muslim-majority territory and offered to give up Pakistani demands for a plebiscite in Kashmir, as enshrined in UN resolutions. Mr Zardari has said better relations with India should not be held "hostage" to the Kashmir issue. To the delight of Pakistani officials, Barack Obama's government is at least prepared to talk about Kashmir and other issues of major concern to Islamabad.

After the Pakistani army launched a major military operation against militants in Swat Valley two months ago, Washington has been more vocal in supporting Pakistan's regional concerns. This month, the US under-secretary of state for South Asia, William Burns, said: "The Kashmir issue has to be settled in line with the aspirations of Kashmiris. It remains our view that a resolution of that issue has to take into account the wishes of Kashmiri people."

The remark was taken as an affront by Indian officials who regard Kashmir as integral to India as Mumbai and Kolkata. Mr Burns then caused further annoyance to India's government by advising India to "close or prune down" its consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar in Afghanistan, which are in proximity to Pak-Afghan border, and which Pakistan has accused of fomenting militancy in the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan.

Washington is delicately balancing its shorter-term interests of working with Pakistan to combat militancy with its longer-term interests of forging a strategic partnership with an emerging superpower, India. The United States and India believe the Pakistan army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency could shut down the group blamed for the attacks on Mumbai, Lashkar-i-Taiba, if they choose to do so.

"If they wanted to shut them down they could," said B Raman, a former additional secretary at India's Research and Analysis Wing intelligence agency. "They can do it, but they don't want to do it because they look upon it as a strategic asset." Indian officials worry that Mr Obama is keen to get Pakistani support for coalition operations in Afghanistan, while ignoring cross border terrorism aimed against India. Indian officials also fear that pressure to catch culprits responsible for the Mumbai attack has been eased and the US is ignoring cross-border terrorism in Indian-held Kashmir.

iwilkinson@thenational.ae