India, Pakistan break the ice, but chill remains

Good chemistry but poor trust mark the dialogue

M K Bhadrakumar


Amid much grandstanding, the India-Pakistan “dialogue” got off to a start in New Delhi on Thursday – albeit a somewhat bumpy one. No immediate breakthrough in frosty ties was expected, nor was one achieved. The United States, which is brokering the structured talks at the Foreign Ministry-level, should heave a sigh of relief that the ball is rolling after a 14-month hiatus.

The approach of the Indian and Pakistani sides presents a study in contrast, although both saw the other as desperately keen for talks to resume. India always held dialogue as a trump card to force Pakistan to respond to its demands to curb the activities of terrorist groups. On its part, Islamabad presumed that India “panicked” at the prospect of regional isolation on its part after placing itself brilliantly to seek leverage with the US from its “strategic assets” – the Taliban – in the endgame in Afghanistan.

Neither assumption is valid. Delhi ought to realize that despite its stubborn refusal to talk, Islamabad parried its demand to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure with links to the Pakistani security establishment that bleeds India. Indeed, indications are that Pakistan envisages the continued use of terrorism as a state policy vis-a-vis India.

Equally, Islamabad is naive to think Delhi will roll over and accept a Taliban regime in Kabul. Indeed, India has several big advantages insofar as its economy is robustly coasting toward a 9% growth rate and it isn’t a basket case needing a constant infusion of American aid, apart from enjoying the political stability that comes with civilian supremacy in government.

The Indians used the talks on Thursday to push terrorism to center stage. The Indian brief seems to have been as hard as nails, with Delhi handing over three dossiers listing Pakistan-based terrorists, while its projection in the run-up was as smooth as silk, with Delhi presenting itself as reasonable and open to exchanges on a range of bilateral issues.

The Pakistani side apparently did not expect Delhi to name a senior serving Pakistani military official as a terrorist. Given the political realities in Pakistan with the military calling the shots, Delhi’s allegation almost instinctively forced the suave Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who led the visiting delegation and who is well regarded in Delhi, to launch an uncharacteristic 90-minute televised diatribe against India at a press conference in the Pakistani chancery.

How the Indian allegation regarding the Pakistani military officer pans out remains to be seen since it constitutes a virtual finger-pointing of the army chief in Rawalpindi, General Pervez Kiani, as the mastermind behind terrorism in the sub-continent.

We may expect storms in the days ahead, and how big the American umbrella is to ferry home the Indians and the Pakistanis in the event of a sudden downpour becomes an element in the Barack Obama administration’s checklist, alongside the attendant woes of the war in Afghanistan.

The audacity of Obama’s hope is simply stunning – pick up the Pakistani military to be a key ally of both the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the fulfillment of strategy on Afghanistan and Central Asia, while stringing Delhi along as a “strategic partner” in encounters with a rising China and resurgent Russia.

Obama faces an acute dilemma. Time is short and he desperately needs the Pakistani military to bring the Taliban in from the cold to the negotiating table, without which the bleeding of the US’s Afghan wound won’t stop. The Pakistani military senses Obama’s need and it knows it is immensely experienced in serving Washington’s interests in the Hindu Kush – but for a price.

The Pakistani wish-list is demanding. The military expects to be built up by Washington to a near parity in conventional strength with its Indian adversary. It also deserves a nuclear deal similar to the one the George W Bush administration granted India. It cannot and will not accept any thinking in Washington that attributes the role of a regional superpower to India; and it expects a US mediatory role to pressure India to settle the Kashmir dispute.

In essence, Pakistan seeks a strategic relationship with the US that duly recognizes its own legitimate claim as a regional power that goes beyond the imperatives of the Afghan war or NATO’s enlargement in Central Asia.

Delhi – and indeed other regional powers – will be keenly watching how far Obama bends to accommodate Pakistan. Meanwhile, a series of consultations with other key players with stakes in Obama’s regional policies is beginning. Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna is scheduled to visit Beijing; Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is due to visit Delhi in March; and a round of ministerial consultation with Iran may come up in May.

However, Delhi may see no real need to seek an entente cordiale with third parties in order to catch Obama’s eye. India’s ties with the US are steadily deepening and unlike in the case with Pakistan, strategic partnership with the US goes down extremely well with the Indian elites and public opinion. It cannot be lost on Washington that India is indeed one of the few “natural allies” left on the planet for the US and unlike the case with Pakistan, Delhi promises a durable relationship of intrinsic worth.

Why should the US, therefore, kill the goose that lays the golden egg? Delhi expects Washington not to tread on India’s core interests and concerns and estimates that a relationship of mutual trust and global partnership isn’t too much to ask.

While the US has seldom been so influential in the sub-continent, a striking parallel can be drawn with the early 1960s after the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. Chinese “communist expansionism” was the core US agenda and Washington counted on keeping both India and Pakistan as allies – and perhaps made its most direct intervention to settle the Kashmir dispute so that its geostrategy could work.

However, as Howard Schaffer, an experienced former US ambassador, wrote in a recent book, at a certain point the John F Kennedy administration saw the danger of annoying India by pressuring it on Kashmir lest Delhi drift toward Beijing for a normalization of relations.

But historical analogies apart, the nascent India-Pakistan dialogue process that started in Delhi on Thursday will likely continue. It seems reasonable to estimate that despite hardliners in both countries, Delhi and Islamabad will realize the usefulness of an incremental dialogue process.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an ardent advocate of a transformation of the adversarial India-Pakistan relationship on lines similar to the historic French-German concord of the 1950s. But there is also some disarray insofar as the Indian security establishment doesn’t seem to share his vision and often gives into silly pastimes of laying booby traps along the path of India-Pakistan normalization.

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan are bound to come across one another on April 28-29 at a summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu.

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao revealed that Bashir invited her to visit Islamabad for the next round of talks. Will they schedule a session in late March or early April?

M K Bhadrakumar has been a former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.
Source : text – Originally published in Asia Times, cross posted atGeoploticaNWO Title Image: AFP/ DAWN.COM
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ‘Wonders of Pakistan’. The contents of this article too are the sole responsibility of the author(s). WoP will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this post.



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