On Wednesday, India’s foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee will hold talks with his counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Islamabad. On the one hand, it’s a routine stock-taking exercise in the peace process, the so-called “composite dialogue” discussing a range of topics from people-to-people contacts to the vexed Kashmir problem. On the other, it’s the first chance for a high-level exchange of views with the new Pakistani administration.
Children in divided Kashmir: President Bush says the Kashmir problem is "ripe" for a solution
The Kashmir problem is “ripe” for a solution. That’s what US President George W. Bush is supposed to have said in talks with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gillani in Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt. But some don’t take the US president very seriously any more.
Ajay Sahni, the Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi, for instance, who said: “President Bush has not been very perceptive in his foreign policy initiatives. I don’t think he is particularly sage in this specific judgment either.”
Ajay Sahni is a specialist on terrorism. He has observed several significant events over the last few weeks, since the new democratically-elected government took power in Islamabad. Talks have been held with the Taliban, and militants have been released. There have been several incidents of cross-border firing on the “Line of control” in Kashmir. And last week bombs killed more than 60 people in the Indian city of Jaipur. Although nothing has been proven, most Indian security experts believe that there is some kind of link to Pakistan.
Ajay Sahni’s draws the following conclusion about the new Pakistani government’s attitude towards terrorism: “It appears to be the case that they have decided that the terrorist groups that have been supported and created by the Pakistani state are not to be dismantled; and that they will continue to be part of Pakistan’s strategic arsenal.”
This assessment is based on events and facts on the ground rather than on policy statements, which have generally been giving out mixed messages. Some seem to point to a conciliatory approach, others to a harder line towards India.
C. Raja Mohan is an international relations expert based in Singapore. He says there is a “policy chaos” in Islamabad these days, compared to when President Musharraf had full control.
“At least with Musharraf there was some sense of that he was a credible interlocutor -- that he had the capacity to deliver at least the large part of what he promised,” Raja Mohan says. “Now we don’t know about this new government… Actually, there have been very significant negotiations on Kashmir between the special envoys of Musharraf and [Indian] Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.”
These negotiations on Kashmir have been conducted through back-channel diplomacy. The talks are obviously highly confidential but some details have become known to the public.
“They have identified some broad principles,” explains Raja Mohan. For instance, “no change in the territorial status quo, significant autonomy on both sides, soft borders and making the borders irrelevant.”
“But what we’ve seen happening over the last few days is that Pakistan seems to be backing off from the promise to keep control of cross-border terrorism. Because the context in which the Kashmir issue was being negotiated was that India will negotiate on Kashmir and Pakistan will stop cross-border terrorism. If Pakistan does not keep its side of the bargain, there will be a dark shadow over the negotiations.”
Involvement of different players
The Indian diplomats will try to find out more this week. Clearly, one difficulty is that there are so many different players involved in Pakistan these days: Different parties in the ruling coalition, President Musharraf, who apparently hasn’t given up his role and last but not least, the traditional power centre.
“Has the position of the army changed now that the army has a new chief?” asks Raja Mohan. “The release of the militants in the Northwest Frontier, in the FATA region, could not have been done without the military’s initiative. But we don’t know the attitude of the all-powerful army in Pakistan.”
Ajay Sahni, meanwhile, suggests that negotiations between India and Pakistan cannot do much to influence policy in Islamabad anyway: “I believe that the improvements, if any, in the security situation in Kashmir, are essentially consequences of international pressure on Pakistan and of growing internal pressures within Pakistan, as a result of the multiple insurgencies the country itself is facing; and the revolt of at least some of the formerly state-controlled terrorist groups, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
This reflects widespread scepticism in India: Pakistan’s establishment, many believe, is distancing itself from Taliban-style militancy only for tactical reasons. Trust -- and peace in Kashmir, for that matter -- at this point in time, do not seem to be the point.