x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Pakistan's first female foreign minister makes debut in peace talks with India

Not only is Hina Rabbani Khar Pakistan's first female foreign minister, she is also the youngest. At just 34, she is some 45 years junior to her Indian counterpart, SM Krishna.

NEW DELHI // The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan will hold peace talks in New Delhi tomorrow overshadowed by triple bomb blasts in Mumbai and intense media interest in Islamabad's new top diplomat, who is both female and only 34.

They will be the first foreign minister-level discussions between the nuclear-armed neighbours and arch-rivals for a year.

The last, in July 2010, saw an initially positive mood soured by mutual recriminations, with each side accusing the other of lacking the sincerity to resume a proper dialogue.

India suspended peace talks after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and getting the process back on track has proved painfully slow, with India insisting Islamabad do more to bring Pakistan-based militants blamed for the attacks to justice.

Analysts expect little in the way of a major breakthrough at tomorrow's meeting, but interest has been piqued by the recent appointment of Hina Rabbani Khar as Pakistan's top diplomat.

Not only is Ms Khar Pakistan's first female foreign minister, she is also the youngest. At just 34, she is some 45 years junior to her Indian counterpart, SM Krishna.

Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, said her appointment would "send positive signals about the soft image of Pakistan" but to the Indian side she remains, as the investigative magazine Tehelka put it, largely "an enigma".

The Pakistani political analyst Shafqat Mahmood argued that her age would present no disadvantage in her talks with Mr Krishna.

"There is no doubt that she's young, but she can handle matters and when there are talks between two nations and when there are agreements, it is not down only to individuals," Mr Mahmood said.

The ministerial talks will be preceded by a meeting of the countries' foreign secretaries today.

Alexander Neil, an Asia analyst at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said that levels of distrust between the two countries were still far too high to push the dialogue ahead in any meaningful way.

"Public statements will be made on cooperation against terrorism but in reality there will not be any substantive progress. The net result, I am sure, is simply that the status quo is maintained," Mr Neil said.

The Indian government has repeatedly argued that non-engagement with Pakistan is simply not an option and will be looking, at the very least, for some confidence-building measures it can announce after the talks.

"The Pakistan project is being taken off life support and it is breathing on its own now," said a senior government source.

There had been concerns that the talks might not happen at all in the wake of the serial blasts on July 13 in India's financial hub Mumbai that killed 20 people.

No group claimed responsibility and the Indian government refrained from speculating, but initial suspicions focused on a home-grown Islamist group with links to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taiba (LiT) - blamed for the 2008 attacks.

"India wants action on militants groups like the LiT, but Pakistan is reluctant," said Pakistan analyst and peace activist AH Nayyar.

"Both countries need sincerity and to change their minds about each other. In the present circumstances, I don't expect anything special from these talks. Both countries are just taking symbolic steps," Mr Nayyar said.

Tomorrow's meeting will be closely watched overseas, however, especially in the United States, which is determined to keep any dialogue - however tentative - alive.

During a visit to India last week, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said Washington was "encouraged" by the resumption of talks that are "so necessary for us to deal with the underlying problem of terrorism" in South Asia.

No restrictions have been placed on the agenda for tomorrow's meeting, which is also likely to touch on the core territorial dispute over Kashmir - the trigger for two of the three wars Indian and Pakistan have fought since independence in 1947.

Uday Bhaskar, an expert on strategic and security issues, said that substantive issues would largely be left aside, with both sides focusing more on the simple goal of keeping the dialogue going.

"What is really important is that there is no major breakdown," said Mr Bhaskar, who also saw no problem with Ms Khar's relative youth. "The fact is that she is the foreign minister and should be treated as such."