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Opinion: India and Pakistan talk diplomacy

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-11-16

The talks between high-level diplomats of India and Pakistan in New Delhi this week on security issues have been mainly make-nice, a well-intentioned effort aimed not so much at domestic constituents but at a faraway player whose beneficence both countries covet.

That player, of course, is President Bush. More than any American president, he has engaged Washington more closely with the two countries - both nuclear powers - whose bitter mutual enmity has been exceeded only by their rivalry in recent years over America's affections. In doing so, he has created common ground for sustained dialogue on a seemingly intractable issue that concerns all three countries - the spread of regional and global terrorism.

Mr. Bush has played his cards well.

He has widened the economic corridor between America and India, the world's two largest democracies. He has honored Prime Minister Singh at the White House. He has enthusiastically endorsed Mr. Singh's program of liberalizing the bureaucracy-burdened economy. He has traveled to India, a country where - astonishingly for a Republican administration that's being assailed in developing countries for its Iraq enterprise - the president enjoys stratospheric approval ratings. He has agreed to sell nuclear technology for civilian purposes to New Delhi, despite the fact that his Congressional critics cavil over India's refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

He has plied Pakistan with good will and generosity, too, not the least because Islamabad - a traditional strategic ally of America - has embraced Mr. Bush's war on terrorism with impressive commitments to eradicate Islamic terrorism. Arms deals and development aid have been accelerated. President Musharraf was recently greeted in Washington with the sort of welcome that even the most hospitable of Subcontinental hosts would have been hard pressed to put together.

So when Pakistan's foreign secretary, Riaz Mohammed Khan, and his Indian counterpart, Shiv Shankar Menon, announced yesterday that they would create a new mechanism to share intelligence on regional and global terrorism, and also take steps to prevent nuclear-weapon "accidents," they had surely Mr. Bush in mind - and they most certainly had Mr. Bush's ear.

That's because, perhaps even more than the Middle East, the Subcontinent is an incubator for terrorists of many persuasions and politics.

It is where Al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, continues planning his relentless war on the West.

It is where Islamic militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba continue their campaign against secular India which claims sovereignty over the disputed mountainous region of Kashmir. Two of the three wars that India and Pakistan have fought since they were carved out of British-held India in 1947 have been over Kashmir; Pakistan holds about a third of the region, and China another third.

The Subcontinent is where Afghanistan's radical Taliban continues gathering weaponry and ideological strength from supporters based in areas bordering Pakistan.

It is where Muslims, Hindus and Christians live in an uneasy peace - reflecting a wider global scenario where many adherents of these three largest of the world's religions increasingly foresee a clash of civilizations.

And, perhaps most of all, the dialogue between India and Pakistan this week had Mr. Bush's ear because of the ever present possibility - although not necessarily likelihood - that another skirmish over Kashmir could mushroom into a regional nuclear conflict.

There's one other matter that must surely be on Mr. Bush's mind: Could some of the nuclear arsenal of the Subcontinent fall into the hands of terrorists?

The question applies particularly to Pakistan, a constitutionally Islamic state where despite President Musharraf's popularity, the appeal of indigenous fundamentalists is on the rise. The political nexus between some of these fundamentalists and Islamic terrorist groups globally is more assumed than established, but there can be little doubt that, locally, militants of the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba draw formidable succor and sustenance from Pakistan's citizenry.

Indeed, India has often averred this in so many words. When bomb blasts in the commercial hub of Mumbai last July killed 186 people and injured scores of other Indians, Indian officials pointed fingers at Pakistan's intelligence agencies. President Musharraf has repeatedly issued denials about involvement in the Mumbai tragedy and in other terrorist actions around India.

But, of course, India says that his denials stretch credulity.

Credulous or not, Mr. Musharraf's well-being, and actions on terrorism, matter to both India and America.

Being chief executive of Pakistan has historically meant being in a parlous position. Assassinations, and coups d'etat aren't uncommon; indeed, General Musharraf himself seized power from an elected civilian government in 1999, and since then has been the target of several assassination attempts.

Indeed, the shadowy zone of confluence between governance and extra-constitutional activity in Pakistan has yet to be penetrated by outsiders, let alone truly understood. Babulal Jain and Mohan Shah, both international businessmen well connected in New Delhi, point out that no one really knows the below-the-radar arrangements that Mr. Musharraf may have made with Islamic fundamentalists in order to preserve his presidency, not to mention his life. While he's in office, Mr. Musharraf is unlikely to aggressively pursue military options against India over Kashmir - not the least because such action is unlikely to find favor with his patron, Mr. Bush.

In fact, the status quo with India is just fine with Mr. Musharraf. He has deniability with regard to terrorism against India. Indeed, the very fact that his emissary held talks with India this week seems to support General Musharraf's contention that he isn't averse to diplomacy. He knows that India's attention is focused these days on accelerating domestic economic growth, that it needs American support for its ambitions to become a global economic giant, and that New Delhi is unlikely to embark on punitive military adventures against Pakistan.

Mr. Musharraf also knows, and Prime Minister Singh knows this as well, that the diplomatic talks aren't going anywhere - except to Islamabad next February, when the foreign secretaries are scheduled to meet again. The agenda? Let's see - security, terrorism. They love to talk up a good game in the Subcontinent over tea and crumpets, followed, of course, by a chotta peg of whiskey (yes, whiskey, even in Islamic Pakistan, but in private, to be sure). Who says the British Raj ended?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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