India, Pakistan suddenly talk peace

A senior US official arrives in India this week to find the table almost set for peace talks between nuclear rivals.

After 16 months of stony silence, interrupted by the near outbreak of war last June, India and Pakistan are suddenly making all the right moves to start peace talks.

Monday, Pakistan raised the stakes by offering to get rid of its nuclear arsenal if India followed suit.

The reasons for this spring warming trend - initiated by India - are still coming to light. But they range from the swift US victory in Iraq and mounting concern over nuclear proliferation and terrorism to a legacy quest by India's ailing prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Diplomats here say this may be the best chance in years to defuse tensions between two nuclear powers that have fought three wars in the past half century. "The most interesting thing about these peace moves is that they come when absolutely nothing is happening on the ground," says a Western diplomat who monitors the Kashmir dispute closely.

The warmup is all the more unlikely, given the lack of any real improvement of 50-year dispute over the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim. Since January 2002, more than 3,600 civilians, Indian forces, and Islamic separatists have died in the picturesque vale of Kashmir, which has been the site of three major Indo-Pakistani conflicts. Fifty-six have been killed in the last week alone.

"There has been no proof that infiltrations are down; in fact they appear to have gone up," says the diplomat. "There's been no proof that Pakistan has curbed extremist groups. And what is more remarkable is that India's ruling party is putting aside a major policy, the security issue, that has been its operating concept for the coming election year."

Whatever their reasons, leaders from both countries have as much to lose from halting peace talks now as they do from merely starting them, and with the international community less distracted by events in Iraq and Afghanistan, there can be increased support - if not strong-armed pressure - for a resolution of lasting Indo-Pakistani issues.

If there is any danger now, diplomats say, it may be that the news media and major international players may raise expectations too high, and push for a resolution too soon.

"The higher the expectations get, the more risky the operation gets," says the Western diplomat says. "The chances of repeating past mistakes is obvious. The Indian government is never comfortable having the media hype a summit during an election year. The whole delicate balance may be damaged by too high expectations from outside."

In Delhi, some experts say the impetus comes not from US pressure, but from Prime Minister Vajpayee. In mid-April, he visited the state of Kashmir and offered what he called a hand of friendship to Pakistan to resolve their differences. Last week, he delivered an emotional speech in parliament, describing what he said will be his last push for peace.

"This round of talks will be decisive, and at least for my life, these will be the last," he told Indian lawmakers. "...We are committed to the improvement of relations with Pakistan, and we are willing to grasp every opportunity for doing so."

Mr. Vajpayee's peace initiatives reportedly took many of his own party members aback, including deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, who thought Vajpayee would simply be giving a nudge to the newly appointed peace negotiator N. N. Vohra. But they were warmly received by Pakistan's Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali, who invited Vajpayee to visit Pakistan at his convenience.

Vajpayee announced renewed diplomatic ties with Pakistan and restored air travel links. Pakistan responded in kind. The prime minister also said at least some of the violence in Kashmir might be out of Pakistan's control, a statement designed to help his government save face with domestic critics.

Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, says the prime minister is determined to leave behind a legacy of peace, and is prepared to use the reins of power to do that. "This is the last chance for him personally to try and take this relationship forward," Bhaskar says. "I think he's asserting his primacy in the domestic politics of India."

The prime minister's statement in parliament followed a flurry of diplomatic activity over the last several days. Pakistan's prime minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, phoned Vajpayee on April 28 and invited the Indian prime minister to Pakistan. It was the first direct contact between Indian and Pakistani leaders in more than two years.

The drama has been tempered since then with follow up statements - Indian officials say their fundamental stance on terrorism has not changed - but the mood in the Indian capital for peace talks is gaining ground.

A common explanation is that US pressure is behind the peace overtures - that India and Pakistan are paving the way for a smooth visit by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to the region this week.

While Washington says it has always encouraged India and Pakistan to talk out its issues, and denies recent Indian reports of laying out a "roadmap on Kashmir," recent moves by the US State Department have clearly shown that the US is giving more attention to the region.

Last week, the US added three more Pakistan-based extremist groups to its growing list of terrorist organizations. The largest of the three, Hizbul Mujahideen, is the oldest and largest Kashmiri militant group. By whittling away at groups that Pakistan regards as "freedom fighters," the US has undercut Pakistan's options and its claim of providing only "diplomatic and moral support" for the Kashmiri separatist movement.

Prem Shankar Jha, a columnist for the leading magazine Outlook, says the peace moves are intended to fend off future US intervention in the region. "The basic feeling is that if we start talking, we can keep away further intrusion by the US. I think both sides agree on that."

The US has made clear its main concern in the region is nuclear proliferation - India and Pakistan announced themselves as nuclear powers in 1998 and came under US sanctions thereafter. The sanctions have since been lifted, but India, in particular, worries that increased US engagement in the region could translate into renewed pressure to discontinue its nuclear weapons research, which the Hindu nationalist government here considers one of its major achievements.

"The fear among the Indian establishment is that if they don't start talking to Pakistan, the Americans will try to cap their nuclear programs," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, an international studies professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Many analysts also give Pakistan credit for starting the dialogue as well. Most importantly, there have been some hints that Pakistan may be willing to push off discussion on Kashmir, at least for the near future. The last attempt at peace, at a summit held in the Indian city of Agra in 2001, failed because Pakistan insisted Kashmir was the central issue for dialogue.

"Pakistan always said Kashmir was the central dispute," Jha says. "Now we're hearing that they'll talk about other issues. So there's also been some rethinking in Pakistan, I think."

Pakistan is also trying to show India - and the United States - it is serious about combating terrorism originating from its soil. The government announced last week it would take action against banned terrorist groups that have reinvented themselves with new names. Pakistan cracked down on several groups last year at the behest of the US, but many of them have since regrouped.

"We are committed to purge our society of terrorism and our every action must speak of our resolve," Pakistan's information minister said.

Cynics here say India is only interested in peace talks because its attempt to threaten Pakistan with military force failed to curb cross-border terrorism. India mobilized several hundred thousand troops along its border with Pakistan late in 2001 after an attack on India's parliament by Pakistan-based militants, but Pakistan dispatched its own forces, and a stalemate ensued.

"The Indian government got tough with Pakistan, it mobilized its forces on the border, and nothing happened," Chenoy says. "So now they have no choice but to start looking at possible talks."

"India realized that the confrontational strategy did not yield results, that it was a total failure," says Suba Chandran, a security analyst at the Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

Some say political changes in both countries and in the global environment have helped propel the diplomatic activity. In India, successful state elections in Kashmir - which displaced the allies of the central government's Hindu nationalists - appear to have won over many ordinary Kashmiris and diminished support for the militants' cause.

The militants have long argued that the Indian government is oppressing Kashmiris. In Pakistan, the recent return of a civilian administration - with a prime minister and a parliament - has given India new leaders to talk to.

India's leaders deeply distrust President Musharraf, whom they view as a military dictator. The US-led war on terrorism has forced Pakistan to reevaluate its longstanding support for militants in Kashmir, IDSA's Bhaskar says. "My sense is that after the Iraq war, the space available for a regime to support any form of terrorism is shrinking, so I think Pakistan has picked that up."

Taking the peace initiative was a courageous move for both sides, analysts say, and leaders in both countries will be walking a diplomatic tightrope to keep the process on track.

India cannot be viewed domestically as softening its stance against cross-border terrorism, and Pakistan will forego popular support for the peace initiative if it agrees to sideline the Kashmir issue completely.

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