Monday, July 19, 2010

The Wall Street Journal July 20, 2010

Empty Talks, Fragile Peace

By T.P.Sreenivasan

A dialogue that began between India and Pakistan with the purpose of removing the trust deficit between them has ended up sowing greater distrust. Mystery remains as to why the two sides went ahead with talks last week when the preparatory meetings had not shown any sign of success. The theory that any dialogue will bring some incremental benefits has been proven wrong.

Sparks flew right, left and center when Foreign Ministers S.M. Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi of India and Pakistan, respectively, gave an account of the “cordial and positive” talks they held in Islamabad on July 15. On every issue that came up in the final press conference, the positions of the two countries remained far apart. No advance was made on investigations into the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack; no respite was indicated on infiltrations or ceasefire violations across the Line of Control separating Indian- and Pakistani-controlled areas of Kashmir; and Pakistan continues to allege that India is stirring up trouble in Baluchistan. If there was any good news on other issues, nothing was heard about it.

The timing was a big part of the problem. India had just received evidence from its questioning of the architect of the Mumbai terrorist attack, David Headley, suggesting that Pakistan’s intelligence agency was involved in the attack, a charge Pakistan denies. That was good enough reason for the talks to be suspended until the cobwebs in the case were cleared.

Instead, Pakistan rebuffed the allegation from Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, repeated on the eve of the summit. Pakistan’s foreign minister equated Mr. Pillai’s comment to remarks made by one of the prime suspects in the attacks, Hafeez Sayeed, by saying that both were equally unhelpful. This cast further doubt on Pakistan’s commitment to bringing the perpetrators to book. Without that determination, no progress was possible on other issues as far as India was concerned.

Meanwhile, even as Pakistan’s army was firing a salute for the Indian foreign minister, guns were booming across the line of control in Kashmir. On July 13, a major of the Indian army was killed and a colonel wounded by the firing from across the line. Mr. Krishna also told Mr. Qureshi that there was a 40% increase in the infiltration of Pakistan terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir. The sound of guns on the border cannot provide background music to talks on peace.

Complicating matters, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had just returned from his fifth visit to China since he became president. The president brought back with him not just the two nuclear reactors China had agreed to build in defiance of world opinion and Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines, but also additional infrastructure to be built on what India considers its own territory in Jammu and Kashmir. The message was one of eternal friendship between Pakistan and China, clearly aimed at keeping India in check. Pakistan believes it can afford a bit of distrust with India if it has a surfeit of trust with China.

India may have calculated that some progress with Pakistan would help bolster India’s own reputation in the forthcoming international conference on Afghanistan, which both India and Pakistan are scheduled to attend. Pakistan, already concerned about the U.S. position that India has a legitimate role in Afghanistan, may not have wanted any change in the equations in Afghanistan at this stage. Letting this round of dialogue go without results may have been part of Pakistan’s calculation.

In a similar vein, U.S. National Security Adviser Jim Jones arrived in India a day before the Islamabad parleys to prepare for President Barack Obama’s scheduled November visit. His outright condemnation of terrorism and the blunt message he conveyed to Pakistan about harboring terrorists within its own territory may have made alarm bells ring in Islamabad. Any admission of Mumbai guilt at this time could have undermined Pakistan’s credibility with the United States.

Such a configuration of events and trends provided a sure recipe for disaster at the Islamabad talks. Perhaps the two countries felt they had gone too far along in the preparations to postpone the summit without losing face. But it’s far worse for peace talks to end in a war of words. Mr. Qureshi rubbed salt in the wound by criticizing Mr. Krishna personally when he was still on Pakistan soil.

Hope remains alive. The two sides will reconvene in November, and when they do, they could usefully remember the experience of this round: Talking for talking’s sake, without a clear path toward results, risks adding a war of recriminations in addition to all the countries’ other troubles.

Mr. Sreenivasan is director general of the Kerala International Centre in Trivandrum and a member of the National Security Advisory Board in New Delhi