As the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) opened its summit in the Pakistani capital Islamabad under a dense umbrella of security, the leaders of India and Pakistan made their first cautious moves in more than two years to shake hands and brush off piles of accumulated mistrust.
Hopes have risen after Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Mir Zafarullah Jamali, met Sunday for the first time. In an unexpected breakthrough, diplomatic sources have said that Mr. Vajpayee is scheduled to meet with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf Monday.
While Pakistani authorities deployed antiaircraft guns and banned all commercial flights into Islamabad to prevent possible terror attacks, Mr. Vajpayee and his Pakistani hosts moved toward resolving their countries' old dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.
But analysts and diplomats are warning that early resolution of the Kashmir conflict is unlikely. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad seems willing to make any major concessions.
Initial parleys have focused on trade issues, with the framework for an accord on a free-trade zone reached during talks ahead of the summit. Under the agreement, all seven SAARC members - encompassing 20 percent of the world's population - would begin to abolish trade tariffs from 2006. Another focus has been the war against terrorism.
Just three months after the Sept. 11 attacks in the US, relations between Pakistan and India plunged to an all-time low after suspected Kashmiri militants stormed the parliament building in India's capital, New Delhi - an attack India blames on Pakistan.
Air, rail, and road links were closed and both countries withdrew their ambassadors, triggering fears among the international community of yet another war. Washington in particular tried to nudge the two parties to the negotiating table.
"President Bush's administration is already fighting against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Saddam loyalists in Iraq. It does not want any problem popping up between Pakistan and India," says Ayesha Agha Siddiqua, a Pakistani defense analyst. "There is a pressure on Vajpayee and General Musharraf to start dialogue to establish a fear-free atmosphere in South Asia. And the present situation is a great opportunity for both of them," she says.
India's prime minister has voiced similar opinions. "The problem is that there have not been sustained talks," said Vajpayee as he started his visit to Pakistan. "Pakistan has been repeating its stance [over Kashmir] and the world has been saying that we should resolve it," he says.
Pakistan's Musharraf has repeatedly called on New Delhi to initiate peace talks and announced several confidence-building measures. After siding with the US in its war against terrorism, he banned Kashmiri militant organizations fighting inside Indian-administered Kashmir against Indian security forces, froze their bank accounts and announced steps to prevent movement of militants into Indian administered Kashmir.
In recent months, there has been an improvement in relations, with a resumption of air and railway links, reinstatement of ambassadors, and a cease-fire along the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the Kashmir valley.
But many analysts warn that high expectations could jeopardize the process.
"The peace process can start, but pinning too many hopes onto an immediate outcome would be premature," says M.R. Narayan Swamy, an Indian analyst.
The Kashmir conflict has deep historical roots. India and Pakistan gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947, with the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent into Pakistan and India. But since then, the two rivals have fought three wars over the Kashmir valley. More than 50,000 people have died in Kashmir alone since 1989 in the gun battles between Kashmiri militants and the Indian security forces.
"In every dialogue, Pakistan expects quick results on Kashmir," says Mr. Swamy. "The time has come that the Pakistani leadership should realize that there can be no overnight results. Both countries will have to seek a solution that can be sold to their people."
Any drastic solution could place Vajpayee and Musharraf in domestic tangles. Vajpayee already faces pressure from the hard-liners within his ruling BJP, who oppose any concessions to Pakistan. Pakistani extremists and Kashmiri militants bitterly oppose Musharraf, accusing him of "selling out to the Americans" for his policies in rooting out militancy.
"Vajpayee and Musharraf both need to walk slowly and gradually. New Delhi should reciprocate Musharraf's initiatives," says Pakistani analyst Khaleda Ghaus, who has been involved in Track II diplomacy efforts between India and Pakistan. "Musharraf has already put his life in danger," she says referring to last month's attempts on Musharraf's life by suicide bombers.
At least 15 people were killed in the attacks as police investigators identified one of the suicide bombers as a militant in a banned Kashmiri guerrilla group, which is involved in fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
"If we put Pakistan and India ties on a scale of A-Z, then the meeting between Musharraf and Vajpayee will be point A, resumption of talks will be point F. There will be several confidence- building measures before that. The actual resolution of the Kashmir issue will be point Z," says a Pakistani foreign ministry official.
Analysts say the summit will be followed by confidence-building steps including visa relaxations, possible opening of consulates in Karachi and Bombay (Mumbai,) and the reopening of the Khokhrapar border in southern Sindh Province, which runs along India's Rajhastan desert and Gujarat state.
"We are enraged neighbors and our nuclear weapons are a reality as well. We need to have friendly relationship as well as to have exchange on nuclear doctrines to end the looming danger," says Dr. Agha. "But it is just a beginning of the journey. It seems an immature relationship. There are fears that any mishap in India or Pakistan could break it up. This love affair needs to blossom on its own for long lasting peace."