India-Pakistan: softly, softly towards peace

Talks begin on Thursday and although both remain committed to 'sustained dialogue', diplomatic re-engagement is unlikely.

ISLAMABAD // Indian and Pakistani officials are downplaying the chances of a major breakthrough when the two countries' foreign ministers meet in Islamabad on Thursday for the first time since the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

The once promising peace process between the South Asian rivals was scuttled by the attacks, allegedly carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani militant group. Instead of returning to the talks, they have focused on the need to restore confidence between the two countries, which came tantalisingly close in 2006 to reaching an agreement on the disputed Kashmir region, the flashpoint for two of the three wars fought between them since independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

"Our expectations are that, as a result of this meeting, our countries get engaged in a sustained manner," Abdel-basit, spokesman of Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs, told journalists on Thursday. The scheduled talks between SM Krishna of India and Pakistan's Shah Mehmood Qureshi are the culmination of three months of positive official contacts, following a meeting of their prime ministers on the sidelines of a regional summit in Bhutan in April.

The thaw followed a commitment at the meeting in Bhutan by Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, to prevent further militant attacks against India being launched from Pakistani territory. The agenda for the meeting of foreign ministers was set at a June 24 consultation in Islamabad between chief diplomats. They agreed on "modalities for restoring trust and confidence for comprehensive, sustained and meaningful dialogue", said Nirupama Rao, the secretary to the Indian ministry of external affairs, after the consultation.

Her talks with Salman Bashir, the secretary to Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs, were notable for a bilateral commitment to deny militants "any opportunity to derail the process of improving the relationship," she said. P Chidambaram, India's home minister, was next to arrive in Islamabad, where he and his Pakistani counterpart, Rehman Malik, on June 26 agreed to share counter-terrorism intelligence.

The overall tone of relations remains cautiously optimistic. Following the talks in Islamabad, Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, told reporters accompanying him back from a G20 summit in Toronto on June 29 that there was "some hope" that Pakistan would crack down on militant activity targeting India. But the diplomatic re-engagement between India and Pakistan is still at an early stage, and both sides have dismissed as premature speculation about a resumption of the so-called "composite dialogue" that had come so close to resolving the Kashmir dispute.

Indian officials continue to talk in terms of a gradual building of trust, but will clearly continue to press Pakistan to prosecute Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the leader of Jama'at-ud-Dawah, the charitable front of LeT, and other Pakistanis alleged to have been instrumental in the Mumbai attacks. Pakistani officials, in turn, see India's return to the negotiating table as an acceptance of the region's geopolitical realities.

"The optimistic side of these talks is that India has realised the engagement in dialogue is in its own interest of peaceful co-existence between the two countries," Mr Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, told a parliamentary committee in Islamabad on Friday. Pakistani analysts said the improvement in relations was the result of quiet but forceful diplomacy by the United States, which sees India as a key ally in Asia but needs Pakistan's support for a political settlement in Afghanistan.

"The Mumbai attacks led to an Indian miscalculation that Pakistan could be isolated, and the US umbilical cord could be severed. That was a big mistake, because Pakistan was, sooner or later, always going to play the Afghan card," said Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a former secretary to Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs, in an interview. "India concluded it would be better to be seen to talk to Pakistan, rather than have a US-imposed solution."

However, the US has preferred not to be seen as a middleman. "It is in their self-interest and our larger interest to see dialogue that can help to resolve tensions," Phillip Crowley, the spokesman for the US state department, said on June 25, following the talks between the government officials in Islamabad.