India, Pakistan talks target rebuilding of trust

A meeting in New Delhi of India and Pakistan's foreign ministers was aimed less at resolving major issues and more at sending a signal that the two countries are trying to avoid further conflict.

Manish Swarup/AP
Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, left and his Pakistan counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar pose for photographs before their talks in New Delhi, India, July 27. The ministers met Wednesday for the first time since the nuclear-armed rivals resumed peace talks in February. Those talks were suspended after Pakistan-based militants attacked the city of Mumbai in November 2008.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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Foreign ministers from India and Pakistan met today in New Delhi for the first time since their two countries decided to resume bilateral talks and ease tensions in the region.

Indian Foreign Minister S.M Krishna announced that relations between the two countries are now "on the right track," while Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said they had entered a "new era" of cooperation," according to Agence France-Presse.

Although no resolution was reached on Kashmir, one of the thorniest issues, Wednesday's talks resulted in an agreement to work together on combating terrorism and to ease travel and trade across their shared border.

The two also agreed on several ways to improve the life of Kashmiris, though the territory's future remains up in the air, Associated Press reports. Pakistan and India have fought three wars since they were partitioned in 1947, two of them over control of Kashmir. The territory is split between the two countries and claimed by both, despite a budding separatist movement. Pakistan Foreign Minister Khar met with Kashmiri separatists ahead of the bilateral talks – a move that, according to the Pakistani paper Dawn, "soured" the day's discussions.

The goals of this round of talks were not ambitious, given the history between India and Pakistan.

 "In this case, talking means not going to war. That is the idea. Dialogue is not to resolve the issues, it's to tell the world they're not going to war," said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary and a former ambassador to the United States, according to Reuters.

The fact that plans for talks continued even after a deadly attack on Mumbai earlier this month supports the belief that the countries are trying to avoid further conflict. India has not yet determined who is responsible for the attack.

Previous talks were called off in 2008, when an attack on Mumbai was traced back to a militant group operating in Pakistani territory.

The Wall Street Journal's India Real Time blog noted ahead of the meeting that the countries have to overcome a gaping lack of trust before they can reach agreement on any serious issues.

The best outcome the sides are hoping for, according to an Indian official, is to agree on measures such as stepping up bus transit across the “line of control” in Kashmir, lengthening the duration of cross-border trading permits and providing telephone facilities for traders. “We want to help people on both sides connect with each other,” the Indian official said.

These are worthy moves, of course; the prime ministers of the two countries agreed last year to work on bridging their “trust deficit” before they move to more thorny issues. Focusing on un-ambitious but friendly gestures and sidestepping the hard issues is the only way talks can go ahead at the moment. Last July’s foreign minister-level talks tanked when a senior Indian official publicly accused Pakistan’s spy agency of directing the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 people.

But relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors will only truly warm when these meetings start tackling the core issues that have made them bitter enemies.

Those core issues of terrorism and Kashmir's separatist movement will stay off the agenda until relations are strong enough to overcome disagreements that will arise as they tackle them, reports the Hindustan Times.

The two ministers agreed to continue holding "subject-specific meetings," which began several months ago. A meeting on nuclear and conventional confidence-building measures is planned for September, The Hindu reports.

The US has a particular interest in the two countries mending relations. Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is on the horizon and without peace between India and Pakistan, Afghanistan could become a proxy battleground for them, Reuters notes.

The Hindustan Times describes the two countries as "jockeying for influence" in Afghanistan. "It is the Afghan dynamic … that will define the regional context for Indo-Pak relations for years to come," said C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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