HERE we go again. With sceptics galore on the sidelines — and surely on the field, too — the governments of India and Pakistan are warily engaging one another yet again.
Don't ask to what end yet. There are smiles and handshakes and vague promises about cooperation over Mumbai and Samjhota, but it may or may not amount to much.
Privately, both sides are trying to downplay expectations. An improvement in even 'atmospherics' is considered a step forward, given the rancour and bitterness of the recent past. Doesn't matter if it's a 'full-spectrum' dialogue or the composite dialogue — at least it's a dialogue.
Everyone agrees it's important for the two sides to keep talking. While talking won't necessarily get results, not talking is guaranteed to not get results.
The glass-half-full types point to the 'low hanging fruit', i.e. things within grasp: Siachen and Sir Creek from Pakistan's perspective; some kind of movement, any movement, on the Mumbai attacks from India's perspective.The interior secretary confab in Delhi may just have thrown up the right amount of crumbs over Mumbai — reaffirming that an Indian team will visit Pakistan at some point and that a Pakistani team will head over to India.
Between Siachen and Sir Creek, a settlement on the latter is more within reach. The security establishment here has rightly — though perhaps a little too gleefully — pointed out that while the technical aspects of a settlement on Siachen have been known for at least two decades, the opposition to a deal has come from the Indian military.
True enough. But there is a reason: the Indian military enjoys a military advantage in Siachen. Militaries are loath to give up military advantages. Ergo, Siachen isn't so easy to solve. Sir Creek remains a more likely prospect.
The need for grabbing the low hanging fruit relatively soon is also clear: desultory talks may a) lead to talks fatigue and b) be overtaken by events, like the composite dialogue was by the Mumbai attacks.
But the constituencies for peace in both countries are weak at the moment, and neither state is interested in peace at any cost. So drift is possible.
At this point it makes sense to zoom out from the details. Eight baskets of goods, throw in Afghanistan, structured/unstructured dialogue — it can all get a bit numbing and the status quo types can run circles around any peacenik.
But there is a compelling reason to keep nudging the talks — too nascent to be called a 'peace process' — along and it is this: as time has gone on, the 'core' issues have grown too.
Back in the day, it was all about Kashmir. Remember even after the nuclear tests in the late '90s, Kashmir was the world's most dangerous flashpoint because that's what Pakistan and India were most likely to fight over.
But not anymore. Water has been elevated to prominence, not quite rivalling Kashmir in intensity yet, but likely to get there eventually if current trends persist.
India is stealing our water. India will be able to choke Pakistan's water supply. India and Pakistan may fight a water war in the not-too-distant future. The doomsday scenarios may be exaggerated at the moment, but the outlines of the argument are increasingly gaining traction.
Think of it this way: Kashmir directly affects just a few million people; water affects everyone in the subcontinent. Of course, Kashmir isn't just about the people who live there — it is tied to how India and Pakistan imagine themselves — but the mess that has been made of that area inspires little hope another 'core' issue could be resolved.
Water isn't 'core' yet, but it will get there eventually — if the stop-start, desultory trend of talks between the two states continues.
Then there's the activity in the Indian armed forces. Defence budgets and weapons acquisitions have grown dramatically in recent years, disrupting the balance in conventional forces between the two countries.
In and of itself, this isn't necessarily disastrous: the Indians have more money, so we'll have to suck it up and figure out our responses within budgetary confines. But, frustrated by the inability to penalise Pakistan for its perceived sins, the Indian military has flirted with novel theories.
Mention 'Cold Start' and 'integrated battle groups' to a Pakistani defence analyst and he's likely to slip into conniptions. At present, some, or even much, of the reaction is gamesmanship, signalling concern about trends rather than current realities. The Indian capability to launch rapid, punitive strikes against Pakistan and to grab small pockets of territory for limited period is many years away.
But the point is that the military balance is in the process of being tweaked — a period of flux which if allowed to accelerate will harden negotiation positions on both sides.
And add to this the Afghan factor. All sides are jockeying for position there, knowing the American war will come to an end eventually, setting off a scramble for who gets what.
Competing for influence in Afghanistan is an old game between India and Pakistan, but the American end game there promises an intensity in competition not seen in a long time.
Pakistan looks at Afghanistan through the India prism — hence all that talk of avoiding a 'two-front war' — which means that when Afghanistan is in flux and India, flush with cash and looking to flex its regional muscles, is on the prowl, it will make Pak-India ties all the more complicated going forward.
So let the bureaucrats and the experts argue over the minutiae of peace with India. In the bigger picture, the ordinary folks need to be worrying about what is on the horizon.
Water, military strategies in flux, Afghanistan there for the taking again — the already fiendishly complex relationship may collapse under the weight of 'new' problems if the 'old' ones aren't resolved first.
The writer is a member of staff.