Paul Pillar

Talking Again in South Asia

From a part of the world that is stingy in giving us much to cheer about came one bit of good news this week: India and Pakistan announced they will resume bilateral talks at the foreign secretary level on a wide range of issues that divide them. The two South Asian antagonists have not been negotiating with each other since the Pakistani-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba killed more than 160 in a terrorist attack in Mumbai, India in November 2008.

Of all the negotiations or would-be negotiations in the world, this is one of the most important. The prime reason is that we all have a strong interest in stability of the relationship between these two nuclear-weapons-armed states. The history of enmity and of past Indo-Pakistani wars, the continued festering of disagreements between the two states, and geostrategic circumstances (including the physical vulnerability of Pakistan to being sliced apart by an Indian offensive) that lend themselves to crises escalating out of control make the Asian subcontinent the part of the world with probably the greatest danger of a nuclear war breaking out.

Because of India's and Pakistan's habit of viewing in zero-sum terms any matter that involves both of them, any progress in reducing tensions between the two also will pay dividends on a host of issues, including ones of importance to the United States. This is not just a matter of getting the Pakistanis to move more of their troops from the Indian border to the northwest, where Washington would like them to be used to do more bashing of militants of the Tehrik-i-Taliban stripe. Mutual Indian-Pakistani suspicions over what each side is doing in Afghanistan need to be reduced to facilitate the participation of both in the sort of multilateral regional diplomacy on Afghanistan that would be an important part of finding a way out of the morass there.

It is easy to find reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects for the talks. Even if they go smoothly, it will be a long slow slog to get to any specific agreements. The biggest threat to success will again be a possible terrorist attack—and groups capable of conducting an attack, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, also have incentives to disrupt Indo-Pakistani diplomacy. Yet another potential complication is the present political uncertainty inside Pakistan.

The previous round of talks gave some grounds for encouragement. They showed that governments of a particular coloration are not necessary for progress. What progress was made involved a Pakistani government led by a military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. On the biggest issue in dispute—the status of Kashmir—Musharraf seemed to have come to realize what most outsider observers have perceived for some time: that an eventual settlement will entail making the current line of control an international boundary and recognizing Indian sovereignty over the larger portion of the disputed state, which is under Indian control.

There is not a lot that outsiders can do directly to improve the prospects for success without appearing to interfere in bilateral matters (a particular bugbear for the Indians). Whatever levers of influence the United States and others do have with each party, however, should be employed to encourage good faith negotiations and perseverance in the face of setbacks and any attempts to disrupt the talks. Beyond that, we can just cheer whatever progress is made.