India-Pakistan Talks: Is a Breakthrough Possible?

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B Mathur / Reuters

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, left, shakes hands with her Pakistani counterpart, Salman Bashir, before a meeting in New Delhi on Feb. 25, 2010

Could one of the world's most intractable conflicts be close to an end? India and Pakistan's foreign secretaries met on Thursday, the first time the two countries have held official talks since the November 2008 terrorist strike in Mumbai. India blames Pakistan-based terrorist networks for the attacks and has been pushing Pakistan to crack down on jihadist groups targeting India. Pakistan says it is doing all it can. The issue has derailed diplomacy between the South Asian neighbors, but the talks on Thursday could mark the beginning of a new phase of their relationship. The buzz in New Delhi foreign policy circles is that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants peace with Pakistan to be the crowning achievement of his second term in office — just as the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal was in the first. Pakistan, meanwhile, is looking for a settlement of its long fight with India over Kashmir, something that the U.S. believes is a key to long-term stability in the region, especially Afghanistan. "In essence, this is a 'talk about talks,' " says Wilson John, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi. "If you ignore the public posturings, both the countries are serious about reopening the dialogue."

There were no dramatic developments after the meeting in New Delhi's Hyderabad House, but as the two countries restart their diplomatic engines over the next few months, here are five things to watch:

1. The Calendar
Indian officials have been careful to set low expectations for the talks. The two top bureaucrats who met, India's Nirupama Rao and Pakistan's Salman Bashir, had no fixed agenda for their discussion and, as expected, did not issue any joint statements or decide when to hold the next round of talks. At a press conference after the close of the three-hour session, Rao said only that they would "remain in touch" and kept open the possibility that their two Prime Ministers would meet at a South Asian regional summit in Bhutan in April. The date set for the next Secretary-level talks will be an important signal. A date within the next two months — before the April 12-13 nuclear summit in Washington — would be a sign of seriousness and increasing momentum toward a settlement.

2. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq
The charismatic spiritual leader of the main mosque in Indian Kashmir is one of the few public figures who commands respect and wields influence in India and Pakistan and among ordinary Kashmiris. He has already floated the idea that Kashmiris should be considered as a third party to the talks but has otherwise not objected. If the two countries begin discussing Kashmir in earnest, as Pakistan is demanding, it will be difficult to reach a lasting agreement without the leader's support. Indian Kashmir has been increasingly tense over the past several months, with a growing cohort of young "stone pelters" protesting the presence of Indian security forces. In the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir's capital, the word of the Mirwaiz carries much more weight than that of any politician or bureaucrat.

3. Kerry and Clinton
President Barack Obama learned his lesson on Kashmir early. When he suggested in an October 2008 interview with TIME's Joe Klein while still running for office that the U.S. might appoint a special envoy to Kashmir, the outrage from India came thick and fast. India has no interest in getting a third country involved in what it believes is purely a bilateral issue. Don't look for Obama to utter "Kashmir" again anytime soon. Still, the U.S. is believed to be a key player behind the scenes in pushing for the talks, and New Delhi will be listening closely for public and private statements from Senator John Kerry and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton evaluating its progress.

4. Terrorism
A Feb. 13 bomb blast at a German bakery in Pune, which killed 16 people, five of them foreigners, would have given New Delhi a perfect excuse to call off the talks. But despite some pressure from opposition parties, the Indian government stuck to its program. Indian authorities have refrained from pinning blame on Pakistan for the Pune blast; there has been no official claim of responsibility. India, which wants credit for that restraint, came to the table with a long list of demands. Rao presented Bashir with three dossiers of evidence linking Pakistan to the Mumbai attacks, including a list of 34 Pakistanis wanted for various terrorist attacks in India. The dossiers and Rao's language — she talked about "unhindered activities of organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, etc., from Pakistani territory" — are clear signs that India is looking for concrete action from Pakistan on terrorism, and not just promises.

5. Afghanistan
While it won't figure in official talks between India and Pakistan, Afghanistan is the most important subtext. Both countries are starting the long process of positioning themselves for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Central Asian country and want to preserve their influence there. Pakistan fears that Kabul will end up with close links to New Delhi, allowing India to essentially "surround" Pakistan; India worries that if the Taliban return to power, India will face more terrorist attacks at home. Influential Indian foreign policy analyst C. Raja Mohan has even suggested, in a recent editorial in the Indian Express, that New Delhi should push for a trilateral summit among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan to secure a lasting peace in the region. That may seem like a distant prospect when India and Pakistan have just restarted their dialogue, but perhaps the only move worth making now is a big one. "If its diplomacy is paralyzed by the fear of another attack, India will invite many more," Mohan writes. "Acting boldly, Delhi might have a chance to alter the very political dynamic at the source of these attacks."

— With reporting by Madhur Singh / New Delhi