The India-Pakistan dialogue moves forward

This week Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao said that although India understands the role of Pakistan’s state agencies in promoting terrorism against India, the latter would still not abandon dialogue with Pakistan. This surprising statement was the clearest sign yet of the odd mix of determination and despair that is driving the peace process between ...

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

This week Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao said that although India understands the role of Pakistan's state agencies in promoting terrorism against India, the latter would still not abandon dialogue with Pakistan. This surprising statement was the clearest sign yet of the odd mix of determination and despair that is driving the peace process between the two countries slowly forward. Talks between India and Pakistan officially restarted with meetings with the two sides' foreign ministers on 15 July in Islamabad, and ever since the future of the dialogue has swung between hope and gloom on almost a daily basis.

This week Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao said that although India understands the role of Pakistan’s state agencies in promoting terrorism against India, the latter would still not abandon dialogue with Pakistan. This surprising statement was the clearest sign yet of the odd mix of determination and despair that is driving the peace process between the two countries slowly forward. Talks between India and Pakistan officially restarted with meetings with the two sides’ foreign ministers on 15 July in Islamabad, and ever since the future of the dialogue has swung between hope and gloom on almost a daily basis.

The current round of conversations which ground to a halt after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, started on an uneven footing.  Before Pakistan had responded to an Indian offer in February for foreign secretary-level talks, the opposition in India attacked the government for caving to U.S. pressure in agreeing to talk to Pakistan before it had curbed terrorism. In Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed and Abdur Rahman Makki, leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamat-ud-Dawa, staged a provocative rally in Islamabad on 5th February pledging attacks across India. When the foreign secretary-level talks to test the waters for resuming the peace process were eventually held in February, they were low-key and non-committal, with India focusing on terrorism while Pakistan instead largely staked a claim on water issues.

Then in April, at an informal luncheon of the leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries in Bhutan, there was an unexpected moment of bonhomie; the two prime ministers went for a long walk at dusk, and soon the impasse was broken. A bargain materialized in which Pakistan agreed that terrorism was the key stumbling block in relations, and India agreed to discuss all issues, understood to mean Kashmir.

Both sides soon agreed that their anti-terrorism agencies would cooperate in investigating the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, and a June meeting between their internal security ministers was an important step forward.

But as Kashmir and terrorism stayed in the headlines, the mistrust between the two sides persisted. Following the recent cycle of separatist protests and deaths caused in police firing in Indian Kashmir, both sides blamed each other for having a hand in the violence. Then on July 13, the largest Kashmiri militant outfits, most of them theoretically banned in Pakistan, convened in Pakistani Kashmir to reject the two countries’ dialogue and state that “jihad” was the only solution to the conflict. On the eve of the foreign ministers’ talks, a senior Indian official accused the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI of coordinating the Mumbai attacks based on the testimony of David Headley. The limits of U.S. influence in the region became apparent when despite the behind-the-scenes role in the talks, U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton’s attempt to get the two foreign ministers to meet on the sidelines of the  Kabul conference on July 20 to remedy the fallout of the press conference came to naught.

The road ahead for the dialogue thus will not be easy. Public opinion on either side is not conducive to the dialogue, as many Pakistanis blame the US-India relationship for the instability in the country, and with the Mumbai attacks dominating Indian public opinion towards Pakistan. Pakistan has moved for arbitration on the water issue under the Indus Waters Treaty. The two countries also have strong differences on a vision for the future of Afghanistan with Pakistan favoring accommodation of the Taliban in the power structure in Kabul, while India only favors limited reintegration of those Taliban who accept the current Afghan constitution. The most recent setback to the dialogue may have come in the form of Wikileaks’ Afghan war logs. In Pakistan, the revelations were seen as a US tactic to put pressure on Pakistan. In India, the Wikileaks documents that purportedly indicate ISI complicity in Taliban attacks on Indian nationals in Afghanistan have hogged the newsprint.

The silver lining

On the bright side, some events from the last six months show that all hope is not lost. For instance, recognizing the role that the media can play in building bilateral trust,  Pakistan’s Jang group and India’s Times of India group started an arrangement – Aman ki Asha (“A hope for Peace”) in January 2010 to periodically f
eature news that builds people-to-people relations and promotes the cause of peace on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. Another leading Indian newspaper, the Indian Express, has started featuring summaries of articles from the Pakistani press.

India and Pakistan have engaged diplomatically for so long and in so many inventive ways that there is little that either side does not know about the others’ position on any given issue. In short, the problem is not one of information asymmetry at all; it is one of trust. Conscious of the pressure of the media spotlight on the talks, both foreign ministers downplayed expectations from the talks before they began. A new buzzword has come into play — “trust deficit,” which leaders on both sides used extensively to describe the problem that the talks were meant to overcome.

Recent confidence-building measures between India and China also seem to have had a positive effect on India-Pakistan relations given India’s historic reservations about Pakistan’s relations with China.

Both sides now recognize terrorism as their common gravest national security challenge, although in India, the word is used to refer to cross-border terrorism and in Pakistan for  domestic terrorism. Yet, the very fact that rhetoric in the run-up to the current round of talks was dominated not so much by hostility as by cynicism set the current discussions apart from several rounds held in the past.  Moreover, the door has not been officially closed on the back-channel process which during 2004 and 2007 is said to have almost led to an agreement on Kashmir. Despite differences over whether and when timetables should be set for resolution of all issues, both sides remain committed to discussing all issues.

The trust that has developed between the two prime ministers has also been an important factor in driving the process forward, and there seems to be agreement that the tenor of the press conference after the July 16 talks should not impede further dialogue. The two sides have decided to stay engaged and the Pakistani foreign minister has been invited in turn to visit Delhi later this year. Since the July peace talks, Pakistan’s minister for internal security and India’s foreign minister have come across as the champions for further dialogue. The latest statement by the Indian foreign secretary indicates that the momentum of the peace talks has not entirely been lost. More statecraft of the kind which led to the initial dialogue could very well produce some surprises.

Raja Karthikeya is a foreign policy researcher based in Washington DC.

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