x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The end of the Kashmir freeze

A call for open dialogue by the founder of Lashkar-i-Taiba signals Pakistan's commitment to resolve the divisive issue.

NEW DELHI // Today's resumption of talks between India and Pakistan coincides with a strategic shift in the region, with Pakistan rounding up a series of high-level Taliban commanders, and the founder of the group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks advocating dialogue between the two adversaries.

"I never said no to dialogue - that is propaganda. I have always talked about having open dialogue, but it needs to be productive, it needs to obtain results," Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the founder of the militant Kashmiri group Lashkar-i-Taiba (LiT), told Al Jazeera. Analysts said support for talks from a militant group with links to the Pakistan army confirms Islamabad's commitment to resolving the Kashmir issue.

Energetic diplomatic efforts by the United States to ease its exit from Afghanistan have brought Delhi and Islamabad back to the table after a 14-month diplomatic freeze, and the renewed dialogue comes just two weeks after the Pakistani military arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradur, second-in-command to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, along with three other major Taliban leaders. But the renewed dialogue also follows an explosion that killed nine people on February 14 in Pune, near Mumbai. And on the eve of the talks, India accused Pakistani border guards in Kashmir of firing on Indian positions across the Kashmir border and injuring a guard. Pakistan denied any firing from its side of the border.

Few expect any major breakthroughs today, with the two sides unable even to agree on what to discuss. Delhi is insisting that terrorism be dealt with first, while Islamabad wants all issues, most importantly Kashmir, on the table immediately. But the fact that India and Pakistan are talking at all is a positive development, and reflects US determination to bring the two sides together. "It is good to be back," Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir said as he arrived in New Delhi yesterday before talks with his counterpart, Nirupama Rao, behind closed doors today. "I have come here to bridge the differences [and] I am hopeful of a positive outcome."

"You have to see this in the context of the American war in Afghanistan," said Syed Saleem Shahzad, a political analyst based in Islamabad. "Pakistan and India will sit together only because the talks were mediated by the Americans. But they are realising they have a common enemy, which is al Qa'eda, which is aiming to stir things up and destabilise the region." Indian analysts agreed that US diplomacy is starting to bear fruit. "I am discerning a slight, a marginal shift as far as Pakistan is concerned," said Major General Ramesh Chopra, a self-described hawk.

Maj Gen Chopra said Pakistan's arrest of four major Afghan Taliban leaders indicates a greater willingness to work with the US to stamp out militant groups on the Afghanistan border and reduce its focus on India in the east. In return, it hopes to minimise Delhi's influence in Afghanistan, perhaps by playing a crucial role in reconciling the Taliban with Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul. Inder Malhotra, former editor of the Times of India newspaper, confirmed that India had come under intense pressure to talk to Pakistan, but he said the implications of recent events were not yet clear.

"Something has happened, but I don't think we here in India have been able to figure out yet what the significance of it is," he said. "The United States has been telling us, 'Please don't give them an opportunity, by refusing to talk, by creating a conflict. They can then say there is nothing they can do on the western front.' So I am afraid India has no answer to that at the moment." Mr Shahzad said the support for talks from LiT parrots the official Pakistani position, but it does not mean that the risk of an attack in India is reduced.

The arrests of the Afghan Taliban leaders has persuaded militant groups along the Afghan border to cut all ties with their longtime sponsors in Pakistan's intelligence services and their position has now hardened in favour of al Qa'eda, Mr Shahzad said. This makes an attack inside India more likely - and creates greater impetus for both India and Pakistan to continue talking regardless of another event.

On the eve of the talks, India accused Pakistani border guards of firing on Indian positions across the Kashmir border and injuring a guard. Most observers warn not to expect anything out of today's talks beyond an agreement to meet again at a later date, but even Indian hawks such as Maj Gen Chopra seem to think talks are a good idea - which in itself is a positive development. "Nothing will be achieved, but I am a general who has fought four wars and either you negotiate or you go to war, so I would recommend negotiation," he said. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae