Pakistan's president visits India, but distrust runs deep

Pakistani President Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Singh discuss Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek, two border disputes kept alive by lack of trust.

Prakash Singh/AP
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari (l.) talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during their meeting at the latter's residence in New Delhi, India, Sunday. Zardari arrived in India on a private trip Sunday that also gives him a chance to meet Indian leaders amid a thaw in relations between the two South Asian rivals.

In a rare exchange, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met in New Delhi over the weekend. The discussion included the long-running border disputes of Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek, two of the smaller but more actionable items standing between the nuclear rivals. 

Known as the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier in the Himalaya Mountains has been the site of intermittent conflict for several decades over who should lay claim to the barren expanse. Though a ceasefire has been in place since 2003, thousands of troops from both sides still patrol the glacier, at times in temperatures far below zero. On Saturday, a massive avalanche near the glacier buried more than 120 Pakistani soldiers with rescue operations yielding no success.

While Siachen is a military dispute, Sir Creek, a 60-mile stretch of water between the Indian state of Gujarat and Sindh province of Pakistan is an economic one. Much of the region is rich in oil and gas below the seabed, and control over the creek would have an important bearing on the energy potential of each nation.

Mr. Zardari urged the Prime Minister to expedite the resolution process of the longstanding territorial rows and extended an invitation to Mr. Singh to visit Pakistan soon for further talks. Singh accepted the invitation. But with no assurance on his demand that Pakistan take immediate steps to rein in terror groups operating from its soil, analysts say these border agreements remain a long way off.

India remains nervous about Pakistan's attitude toward Islamic militancy. A fresh reminder for India came last week. After the US announced a $10 million bounty for information leading to the capture of Hafiz Saeed – a militant wanted by India too – he set up a public press conference near the country's military headquarters to taunt the US. Mr. Saeed, who continues to live freely in Pakistan, founded Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 164 people and wounded over 300.

“Finding a solution in Siachen is even more difficult after the Mumbai attacks,” says Kanwal Sibal, a former Foreign Secretary of India. "There is a lack of trust with the Pakistan military. Given the military’s proximity to India in Siachen, if Pakistan does not respect a potential agreement, it would cause significant problems for India."

Negotiations over Sir Creek have been in the works for years and could be made any day, says Uday Bhaskar, the former director of the Center for Defense Studies and Analysis. But, he argues, “those agreements will also continue to be stalled." 

“I would like to say that I see a possible border deal with Sir Creek as the beginning of a new dawn between India and Pakistan relations, but sadly I don’t think that’s the case,” says Bhaskar. “It is structurally problematic and both sides suffer from a significant lack of trust.”

Singh had once hoped to leave improved relations between Pakistan and India as part of his legacy. But with the upcoming 2014 national elections on the horizon, time is running out.

“I don’t see improvements in India and Pakistan relations or significant gains with Siachen or Sir Creek being part of Manmohan Singh’s legacy,” says Bhaskar. “I simply don’t see the Pakistani government making the bold moves needed for this to happen.”

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