Good news from Pakistan is a rarity these days. In the last year the world’s second-largest Muslim country in terms of population has witnessed its worst ever natural disaster, a deteriorating economy, and a string of terrorist attacks and assassinations that have severely intimidated and undermined the progressive, moderate voices in the country. But this week the dialogue between Pakistan and India resumed at a ministerial level for the first time since 2008—and the meeting actually went fairly well.
This Wednesday, Pakistan’s new foreign minister, thirty-four-year-old Hina Rabbani Khar, and her Indian counterpart, seventy-nine-year-old S.M Krishna, meet in New Delhi for the first ministerial-level exchanges between the two neighbors since ten Lashkar-e-Tayyiba terrorists attacked Mumbai in November 2008. They meet despite the fact that terrorists killed twenty-four people in Mumbai just two weeks ago in another atrocity targeting this time targeting the city’s metro system. India’s decision to go forward with the foreign ministers meeting despite the latest carnage reflected a decision by prime minister Manmohan Singh and congress party-leader Sonia Gandhi that anger and frustration is not a policy and that engagement is the only way to deal with Pakistan, even if it is difficult and painful.
As Pakistan’s first female foreign minister, Khar presented a new face and image of Islamabad to New Delhi, which was badly needed and refreshing. The Indian press treated her with less hostility than visiting Pakistanis usually get. Khar subsequently met with Singh and said that the bilateral relationship will now move in a new more positive direction. She invited Singh to visit Islamabad.
Even in the best of times, the dialogue between India and Pakistan has often been more of a ritual than a conversation, more theater than substance. In this case, there actually was a small substantive result—increased trade and travel across their borders in Kashmir. Cross-border traffic across the Line of Control in contested Kashmir will happen four days of the week instead of two. Kashmiris will also find it somewhat easier to get travel permits to cross the LOC for tourism and religious pilgrimages. These are very modest steps, but compared to the hostility of the last three years it is a move in the right direction. Another ministerial-level meeting is scheduled for 2012.
Much could go wrong in the Indo-Pakistani dialogue, and powerful forces inside Pakistan want it to go wrong. LeT and its jihadist allies staged the Mumbai attack in 2008 to nip a budding rapprochement begun by president Asif Zardari. It worked brilliantly. It is now clear that LeT had considerable help from both al-Qaeda and the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, in planning and executing the Mumbai attack. The dark forces in Pakistan, the nexus between the jihadists and the army, remain very powerful and very dangerous.
But we should not overlook the significance of the resumption of dialogue. Indeed secretary of state Hillary Clinton encouraged the Indians to go ahead with the foreign ministers meeting when she visited New Delhi earlier this month. Even slow and cautious movement toward reducing tensions between these two nuclear-armed enemies is better than the alternative. The United States badly needs some positive momentum in the subcontinent; our own relationship with Pakistan is in free fall with no floor in sight. We should back the bilateral dialogue. Aid levels are bound to fall as Congress looks to cut spending and assistance to Pakistan is very vulnerable.
But a turtle-like pace between New Delhi and Islamabad will not do. India and Pakistan need to step it up and move to open more trade and travel doors to each other. It is in the strategic and economic interests of both countries to grow closer together. Entrepreneurs on both sides of the border will do more to build real peace than all the diplomats in the world. Let them loose. Singh and Gandhi have presided over the most rapid expansion of prosperity in India’s history over the last few years. They need to do all they can to help spread the wealth into Pakistan. If they move slowly the dark forces will sabotage it again.
Image by Khaum