Hopes for India-Pakistan peace talks are modest

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

BHANUCHAK, PAKISTAN -- Before creation of the India-Pakistan border split their villages in half in 1947, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh families here lived and farmed together. But today they can't even see one another through a fortified border covered with razor wire and guarded by soldiers in sandbagged bunkers. They also can't see how this week's U.S.-backed peace talks between India and Pakistan will do any good.

"The Americans want India and Pakistan to be friends," said Badudrin, a 74-year-old Pakistani farmer, standing near a golden field of mustard flowers. "There are too many issues. It's not meant to be. It's not our history. It's not our future."

Reducing those entrenched tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals is a centerpiece of the Obama administration's foreign policy amid an expanding war in neighboring Afghanistan. On Thursday, India and Pakistan are scheduled to hold their most extensive high-level talks since 10 Pakistan-based gunmen killed 165 people in Mumbai in late 2008.

The Obama administration, which has gently but firmly pushed the two toward talks, is less interested in the substance of their discussion than the fact that it is happening at all, according to senior administration officials. "For us, the bar is pretty low," one official said. "We're looking just to get a dialogue restarted."

The administration believes that each nation's fixation on the other distracts from key U.S. foreign policy interests. The United States wants Pakistan to concentrate less on its problems with its giant neighbor to the east and more on eliminating the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups that are based in Pakistan's mountainous border region with Afghanistan.

Washington has spent nearly $12 billion in the past eight years to bolster Pakistan's military, largely to support efforts to combat militancy. Inside Afghanistan, competition for influence between India and Pakistan is seen as undermining the U.S. war effort. More broadly, India is seen as a strategic bulwark against China's growing regional and international power.

To persuade India and Pakistan to talk to each other, the administration has sharply increased its military and economic ties to both, and tried to take their mutual concerns seriously while convincing them that dialogue is in their own interest.

Pakistan is eager for talks, and President Obama promised in December that he would help reduce tensions with India in exchange for Pakistan's increased cooperation against insurgents. India, the more reluctant participant, has been wooed and flattered by a series of senior U.S. officials, along with a pledge to help keep Pakistan in line.

U.S. officials strongly urged India to invite Pakistan to the table in New Delhi to clear the air on key issues, including the disputed region of Kashmir and the role of Pakistanis in the Mumbai attacks.

Interviews in India and Pakistan suggest there is little reason to hope for major breakthroughs.

Indian officials said the agenda will focus on terrorism, although they are leaving the door open to more extensive discussions. "We hope we can build, in a graduated manner, better communication and a serious and responsive dialogue to address issues of concern between our two countries," Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said Monday in London.

Indian officials argue that despite pledges from Pakistan to dismantle militant groups operating on its soil, the extremist group Lashkar-i-Taiba, accused of orchestrating the Mumbai attacks, has not only remained operational but flourished.

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