India, Pakistan pursue peace talks in the slow lane

Mid-level negotiations began Monday in Islamabad. Step one: Cricket matches to resume after 14-year hiatus.

Shadowed by charges of nuclear proliferation, Pakistan is hosting its nuclear-armed rival, India, for three days of peace talks.

The parley is the latest measure of the progress the two nations have made in reducing tensions.

Two years ago, India and Pakistan were on the brink of their fourth war since independence from Britain in 1947. But in recent months transport links and diplomatic ties have been restored. Perhaps the most telling indication of goodwill: Their national cricket teams will compete again for the first time in 14 years.

But no one expects much headway on Kashmir, the key source of contention. Analysts say the pace of progress will be slowed by two factors: Agra and the Indian elections.

"We should not make the mistake of raising the expectations of a breakthrough on Kashmir in these talks. [Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari] Vajpayee and his party leaders are fully engrossed in the general elections [expected in April-May], and are unlikely to announce major decisions. Major decisions, like that on Kashmir, will be left to the new government," says Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin (ret.), a Pakistani defense analyst.

"[Pakistan's President Pervez] Musharraf and Vajpayee both need to sustain the prevalent peaceful atmosphere before reaching any lasting peace formula. The relationship is still fragile and any mishap in Pakistan, India, or Kashmir can derail the peace process," he says.

Both sides, General Matinuddin says, want to avoid moving too quickly. That's what most observers agree halted the last peace effort. In July 2001, Musharraf and Vajpayee met with much fanfare in Agra, India, but the talks failed. And in December 2001 relations nosedived after the Indian Parliament building was stormed and New Delhi blamed Islamabad-backed Kashmiri militants for the attack.

Today, after admitting that the former chief of its nuclear program sold the technology abroad, Pakistan is trying to build bridges with its No. 1 enemy. India, with one eye on upcoming elections, appears ready to reciprocate. The initial breakthrough setting up this week's talks came last month after Vajpayee and Musharraf shook hands at a meeting on the sidelines of the South Asian Conference for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Yesterday, the secretary-level diplomatic teams of Pakistan and India began negotiations in Islamabad which are expected to include such confidence-building steps as ways to avoid a nuclear accident and ways to handle a dispute over water flowing to Pakistan from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Diplomatic sources say the Kashmir issue might figure on the final day when the Indian foreign secretary will meet with his Pakistani counterpart. They will finalize the agenda and announce the date for the next round of talks, expected to be held in New Delhi in the summer.

"These talks are to discuss the processes and to design the agenda for substantive talks in the future," says Najamuddin Sheikh, Pakistan's former foreign secretary. "There is certainly pressure from the US and international community on New Delhi and Islamabad to find peaceful political solutions to all of the issues, including Kashmir."

Both Musharraf and Vajpayee have their own reasons for talking peace now.

"The talks are very important for Musharraf as he wants to emerge as peace-maker in the long term and for easing American pressure on the nuclear issue as well," says M.B. Naqvi, a leading columnist for The News, a Pakistani English- language daily newspaper. "The American pressure is expected to increase regarding the nuclear proliferation by Pakistani scientists, so rulers in Islamabad anxiously desire to negotiate with India to address at least some of the US concerns," he says.

Mr. Naqvi says that India is motivated by the upcoming elections. "Vajpayee thinks that preventing Pakistan from bleeding the Kashmir Valley will give his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) credit and enable sympathies from Muslim voters."

The new detente has raised hopes in both Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, but solving the problem of Kashmir is considered as complex as the Middle East imbroglio. The Kashmir territory is divided between India and Pakistan, and more than 65,000 people have died since an insurgency began in 1989.

For these reasons, both sides are walking cautiously, trying to build a castle of peace in phases with diplomats, rather than rushing to complete it with the top leaders. Building trust after half a century of rivalry takes time.

"New Delhi is waiting to see whether the cease-fire on the Line of Control [between the two sides in Kashmir] and the stoppage of infiltration is due to the winter snows or a genuine shift in the Kashmir policy," says Tauseef Ahmed, a Pakistani political analyst.

"Islamabad anxiously wants India to demonstrate restraint in military operations in the valley and show sincerity in resolving the Kashmir issue," he says.

Musharraf needs the peace process, say analysts. He is already facing criticism from opposition political parties and extremist religious groups for bowing to the US by stopping nuclear weapons sales, and for changing the country's policies towards Afghanistan and Kashmir.

"In the changed scenario after 9/11, there is a realization by Musharraf and Pakistan military leadership that a Kashmir solution lies in negotiations, and cannot be resolved militarily or by violent means," says Khaleda Ghaus, a professor of international relations at the University of Karachi. "But the Kashmir problem is deep rooted. He needs to pacify Kashmiri militants (the religious extremist groups who see him as a traitor) and he needs reciprocal measures from New Delhi and an accord of trust for a lasting peace."

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