ISLAMABAD, Feb 11 Sanity has finally prevailed and one can safely say that the foreign secretary-level talks in the last week of February is the first serious effort since the dastardly incident of Mumbai, raising hopes of a thaw in relations between the two South Asian nuclear-armed neighbours.
The talks, which have been encouraged if not midwifed by Washington, certainly raise the prospect of ending the prolonged diplomatic standoff between the two countries. But there is still a long way to go before one could expect a breakthrough on important issues confronting the two countries.
Analysts said the immediate challenge is to agree on a structured framework for discussions. India is still reluctant to return to a composite mechanism which provided the basis for negotiations in the past. That leaves a huge gap between the two sides over how to pursue the negotiations.
“We will go to Delhi with an open mind and steer the discussions towards a positive direction,” said Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who will lead the Pakistani delegation in the talks. He said the discussions would cover all issues between the two countries. But India is still vague about the framework saying that it is only interested in discussing terror and other “relevant” issues.
It is quite apparent that the shift in India's no-talk posture has come on the nudging from Washington as well as changing regional security situation. The Indian move to invite Pakistan for talks followed the recent visit to Delhi of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates who warned that Al Qaeda and regional terrorist groups were determined to incite another war between India and Pakistan. The Obama administration also sees continued tension in South Asia as a major problem as it pursues a new policy in Afghanistan.The talks will resume after 14 months of hiatus, but there is still a question if they will lead to more substantive negotiations leading the way for conflict resolution.
In 2004, India and Pakistan resumed dialogue over Kashmir as well as a broad range of other issues, including economic cooperation and water disputes. The process did not provide spectacular breakthroughs, but it helped develop a better understanding between the two countries. Pakistan's position is clear that it wants to return to the framework agreed in 2004.
“An open-ended dialogue will take us nowhere,” said Mr Bashir. He said Pakistan was prepared to discuss all the issues including terrorism which has been a major concern for India. Delhi had earlier linked the resumption of talks with Pakistan taking action against Lashkar-i-Taiba and its leader Hafiz Mohammed Saeed who India said had masterminded the Mumbai terrorist attacks.
Pakistan has already put on trial six men including Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, a top commander of the LeT for planning the attacks. But it has refused to take action against Mr Saeed, saying there was no evidence against him.
The two countries had agreed on a joint anti-terrorism mechanism, but it has remained ineffective because of the tension between them. Pakistan said revival of the mechanism could help in joint efforts to counter terrorism in the region.
The two countries are also expected to resume backchannel negotiations which appeared to have made some major progress towards the resolution of Siachen and Kashmir. The contacts fizzled out in 2007 apparently because of political turmoil in Pakistan. Delhi was not keen to renew it after the civilian government came to power in February 2008.
Pakistan has nominated Riaz Mohammed Khan, a former foreign secretary, as the contact person. The Indian side is represented by National Security Advisor Shiveshankar Menon. The two have already met informally once, a Pakistani foreign ministry official said.
A senior Pakistani official said the Delhi meeting could pave the way for a meeting between the two prime ministers on the sidelines of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit scheduled to be held in Bhutan in April. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani last summer on the sidelines of a summit in Egypt. The meeting produced some encouraging development with India agreeing to resume official talks, but Prime Minister Singh backed out of the commitment buckling under pressure from the opposition. One can hope that the coming rounds of talks may lead to a more concrete and sustainable peace process.