For real India-Pakistan dialogue

The Bush administration must launch a sustained effort

During the past few weeks, world leaders have been trying to avert war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

With a million soldiers facing each other on the border, daily artillery and mortar barrages, and bellicose statements from New Delhi and Islamabad, Washington and other major capitals have been justifiably worried. Even local encounters could escalate into broader conflict, possibly leading to the nightmare scenario of the first use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

In the coming weeks, one hopes India and Pakistan will start to deescalate. Pakistan must firmly put the lid on infiltration across the Kashmir Line of Control. India must begin pulling back its troops and start talking with Pakistan.

But after the present crisis abates, the Bush administration must not let matters rest. India and Pakistan desperately need to initiate a serious dialogue. Experience suggests that the two countries can start such a process, but will be unable to sustain it. This is where outsiders can help.

Currently, the United States enjoys close relations with both nations. Washington should not be shy about using its diplomatic capital to encourage Delhi and Islamabad to get a process of dialogue under way. Europe, Russia, China, and others can all help, but the two protagonists will look to the US to take the lead.

Procedurally, the approach that India and Pakistan agreed upon at their Lahore summit in February 1999 is the most practical way to structure talks. At the time, the two countries decided to engage in a series of parallel discussions on various problems, including Kashmir. This met Pakistan's desire that Kashmir receive sufficient profile and India's wish that talks not focus exclusively on the question. Although the Lahore process ended that spring, after Pakistan rashly sent its forces across the Line of Control to spark the Kargil crisis, the approach remains valid.

First, India and Pakistan should address the nuclear issue, by discussing ways to reduce the threat of nuclear war through misperception or miscalculation. Nothing is more important than starting a nuclear dialogue. They should also explore economic relations, including removal by Islamabad of its bar to most trade with India, and by Delhi of its opposition to a pipeline transporting natural gas from Iran or Central Asia across Pakistan to energy-short India.

The two sides should also make a renewed effort to resolve their dispute over the 18,000-foot-high Siachin glacier. For nearly 15 years, frostbitten Indian and Pakistani troops have fought a battle that's strategically useless and costly in human and financial terms.

Talks on Kashmir itself should initially focus on ways to bring greater normalcy and calm to both sides of the Line of Control. In addition, India should move toward a political opening with Kashmiri dissidents by offering greater autonomy and credible guarantees that coming state assembly elections will be genuinely free. India must also address the many human rights complaints against its security forces in Kashmir.

At this juncture, however, it would be premature to seek a full resolution of the Kashmir dispute. After visiting the region in November 1962, US diplomat W. Averell Harriman counseled President Kennedy that the basic problem was that any Kashmir solution acceptable to India was unacceptable to Pakistan and vice versa. Forty years later, not much has changed.

Although the six rounds of bilateral negotiations over Kashmir that followed Mr. Harriman's visit failed, they provide a model for how outsiders can assist the two nations without becoming a direct party to the talks. US and British envoys in Delhi and Islamabad remained in constant contact with the Indian and Pakistani leadership during the negotiations and passed on a steady stream of ideas from Washington and London. Presidential and prime ministerial letters, plus a number of high-level visitors, buttressed their efforts.

Experience also makes clear that India and Pakistan are most likely to make progress if they negotiate in private, outside the glare of TV cameras. Diplomacy by press conference and political grandstanding for the audience back home have become a serious barrier to advancing the India-Pakistan bilateral dialogue. This is a time for quiet diplomacy.

Above all, if the US wants to prevent future Kashmir crises, it cannot restrict its high-level engagement to times when India and Pakistan are at each other's throats. Washington needs to launch a sustained effort to get both nations into a process of serious dialogue and negotiation on the issues that make the Indian subcontinent one of the most dangerous places on earth.

• Robert M. Hathaway is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Dennis Kux is a senior policy scholar there and author of 'The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies' (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

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