Journalist's Account Cites Secret 3-Year Talks Between India, Pakistan on Kashmir

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

India and Pakistan engaged in nearly three years of secret, high-level talks that narrowly missed achieving a historic breakthrough in the countries' decades-old conflict over Kashmir, according to an account set for publication today.

The negotiations, which began in 2004, produced the outlines of an accord that would have allowed a gradual demilitarization of the disputed Himalayan province, a flash point in relations between the rivals since 1947. The effort stalled in 2007, and the prospects for a settlement were further undermined by deadly terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November, the report said.

The peace initiative is described in an article by investigative journalist Steve Coll, who writes in New Yorker magazine that the two sides had "come to semicolons" in their negotiations when the effort lost steam.

The attempt ultimately failed, not because of substantive differences, Coll writes, but because declining political fortunes left Pakistan's then-president, Pervez Musharraf, without the clout he needed to sell the agreement at home. Although Musharraf fought for the deal -- as did Indian leader Manmohan Singh -- he became so weakened politically that he "couldn't sell himself," let alone a surprise peace deal with Pakistan's longtime rival, Coll says, quoting senior Pakistani and Indian officials. Musharraf resigned as president in August.

Coll, a former Washington Post managing editor who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his book "Ghost Wars," writes that the resolution of the Kashmir dispute was the cornerstone of a broad agreement that would have represented a "paradigm shift" in relations between India and Pakistan: a moving away from decades of hostility to acceptance and peaceful trade.

Under the plan, the Kashmir conflict would have been resolved through the creation of an autonomous region in which local residents could move freely and conduct trade on both sides of the territorial boundary. Over time, the border would become irrelevant, and declining violence would allow a gradual withdrawal of tens of thousands of troops that now face one another across the region's mountain passes.

"It was huge -- I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem," the article quoted a senior Indian official as saying. "You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations."

According to Coll's account, the secret negotiations consisted of about two dozen meetings in hotel rooms in various overseas locations. The sessions revolved around developing a document known as a "non-paper," diplomatic jargon for a negotiated text that bears no names or signatures and can "serve as a deniable but detailed basis for a deal," the article says.

The U.S. and British governments were aware of the talks and offered low-key support and advice but otherwise elected to let India and Pakistan settle their disputes unaided, the article says.

"Ultimately, any peace settlement would have to attract support in both countries' parliaments; if it were seen as a product of American or British meddling, its prospects would be dim," Coll writes.

Musharraf is portrayed as an enthusiastic supporter of the deal who succeeded in winning converts among the country's skeptical military leadership. Yet, just as the two countries were beginning to consider how to sell the plan domestically, Musharraf was compelled to seek a delay. In March 2007, as the two capitals were discussing plans for a historic summit, Musharraf became embroiled in a public feud with his country's highest court. He eventually fired the chief justice, triggering weeks of protests by lawyers and activists.

What was thought to be a temporary setback soon proved to be far more serious. "Rather than recovering, the general slipped into a political death spiral," culminating in his resignation, Coll said.

Relations -- and hopes for resuming the peace initiative -- began a downward slide after Musharraf left office. In Kashmir, anti-India fighters began an aggressive campaign of public demonstrations and terrorist attacks that seemed designed, Coll writes, to send a message: "Musharraf is gone, but the Kashmir war is alive."

In recent weeks, there have been signs of a modest thaw in Indo-Pakistani relations. Last week, The Washington Post reported that Indian and Pakistani spy agencies have been cooperating secretly in India's investigation of the Mumbai attacks, sharing highly sensitive intelligence, with the CIA serving as arbiter and mediator. Pakistan has announced criminal charges against Pakistan-based men linked to the attack and acknowledged that some of the planning for the three-day assault occurred in that country.

Yet, in the emotionally charged aftermath of the attacks, the new civilian-led government of Pakistan may not find it easy to return to negotiations on Kashmir, even if it wishes to, Coll said.

"The military is completely on board at top levels -- with a paradigm shift, to see India as an opportunity, to change domestic attitudes," a senior Pakistani official was quoted as saying. But, he reportedly added, "the public mood is out of sync."

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