India and Pakistan edge towards talks

Premiers of India and Pakistan plan to meet during Saarc summit as Karzai arrives in Delhi to discuss the plan for negotiation with Taliban.

NEW DELHI // The prime ministers of India and Pakistan are expected to hold talks on the sidelines of a conference of regional leaders in Bhutan this week, suggesting that the rival nations are edging closer to resuming a dialogue.

Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, is likely to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, during the South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation (Saarc) summit, India's external affairs minister, SM Krishna, said yesterday. The summit will be held on April 28-29. "All bilateral issues between India and Pakistan will be discussed as and when the prime ministers meet," Mr Krishna, said.

The announcement came as Mr Singh met the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in Delhi to discuss the latter's plans to reach out to the Taliban for a negotiated settlement of the nine-year conflict in his country. Mr Singh and Mr Karzai, who were meeting for the first time since Mr Karzai was re-elected in November, also discussed terrorism and the security of Indians working in Afghanistan. The flurry of diplomatic activity comes as the three countries prepare for a possible withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, which Barack Obama, the US president, has said will begin next year.

The United States has been encouraging India and Pakistan to formally resume a peace process, which was suspended after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 when Pakistani militants killed at least 160 people. Washington sees the peace process as key to stabilising Afghanistan, which has long been a battleground in a proxy conflict between the South Asian rivals who have fought three wars since winning independence from Britain in 1947.

India, meanwhile, is anxious to preserve its influence in Afghanistan as western troops withdraw to prevent it from falling back into the strategic embrace of Pakistan. "The US is seeking to prematurely end the war in Afghanistan and the blow back from that will be directed at India." said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He and other analysts said the meeting between Mr Singh and Mr Gilani would produce little or nothing in terms of concrete results, especially on the core issue dividing them - the disputed region of Kashmir.

Direct talks between India and Pakistan tentatively resumed in February when the two countries' top diplomats met in Delhi. That meeting ended with India reiterating that full negotiations would only resume when it feels Pakistan is doing more to bring those responsible for the Mumbai attacks to justice. Mr Singh and Mr Gilani last came face to face at a 47-nation summit on nuclear security in Washington earlier this month, where they shook hands at a dinner reception and exchanged little more than pleasantries.

"At the moment any meeting is going to be more symbolic than substantive. It's more for the public gallery," said Prof Chellaney. "As to whether it will lead to resumption of talks, I don't think that will happen anytime soon." Aside from the Kashmir issue, Pakistan accuses India of using its consulates in Afghanistan as fronts to aid separatists in Pakistan's south-western region of Balochistan. India denies this and appears determined to maintain the influence it has gained through supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the 1990s and through funding aid projects over the past decade.

Since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, India has spent millions of dollars to help rebuild the country's war-ravaged infrastructure by building roads, schools, hospitals and dams. India is also involved in training the country's police forces and its diplomatic corps. However, New Delhi has been concerned about continuing attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan, which it claims are sponsored by Pakistan.

Yesterday, Mr Singh said such attacks would not prevent India from helping to rebuild the war-ravaged country. "I conveyed to President Karzai that the perpetrators of such attacks will not succeed in undermining India's commitment to assist the Afghan people," Mr Singh said. "India remains committed to assisting the government and people of Afghanistan in their efforts towards the reconstruction and development of their country."

Mr Karzai said he and Mr Singh had also discussed a plan to reintegrate low-level Taliban fighters back into Afghan society and to reconcile with senior insurgents provided they give up violence - a plan India has concerns over. "We discussed reintegration and reconciling of those elements of the Taliban and others who have accepted the Afghan Constitution, who are not part of al Qa'eda, who are not part of any terrorist network," Mr Karzai said.