India, Pakistan vow to 'stay in touch' in first formal talks since Mumbai siege

By Emily Wax
Friday, February 26, 2010

NEW DELHI -- India and Pakistan met Thursday for their first formal talks since the deadly siege of Mumbai in 2008. Officials described the U.S.-backed session as a cautious step toward restoring trust between the two nuclear-armed rivals, though both sides conceded that much mutual suspicion remains and promised only to "keep in touch."

Neither country gave a date for follow-up talks after Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao met with Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir for more than three hours in a former palace in the Indian capital.

India said Pakistan has not done enough to dismantle terrorist networks on its soil and bring those responsible for the Mumbai siege to justice. India blames the attacks on a Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-i-Taiba, which remains intact. Rao also said the "time is not right" for a resumption of the wide-ranging discussions that Pakistan wants.

Bashir told reporters that Pakistan "welcomed India's focus on terrorism" during the talks, but stressed that both countries have been victims of such violence. He also said Pakistan had raised the emotional issue of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, which has been the cause of two of the three wars between the nations and lies at the heart of their decades-old dispute.

"It is unfair and unrealistic and, in our view, counterproductive to . . . keep the focus" only on Mumbai, Bashir said, stressing his sympathy for the victims of the attacks. "Otherwise, we get caught in a time warp. . . . One cannot be dismissive of the Kashmir issue, and any effort to be dismissive of this issue will not be healthy."

Pakistani officials also wanted to discuss growing tensions over water from Himalayan rivers flowing down from Indian Kashmir into the Indus River basin in Pakistan. Pakistan says India is diverting water with the construction of dams, an allegation India denies.

The talks come at a pivotal moment in the troubled region. India and Pakistan are struggling for influence in Afghanistan and, some experts say, jeopardizing regional security. The Obama administration hopes that if tensions between the neighboring countries decrease, Pakistan will focus more on eliminating the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups based in its western border region.

India handed Pakistan three dossiers of information Thursday on more than a dozen suspected militants, including those linked to the Mumbai attacks, an al-Qaeda-affiliated suspect who has issued threats against India, and Indian insurgents believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

"We went into today's talks with an open mind, but firmly conscious of the trust deficit between the two countries," Rao said.

Before the Mumbai attacks, the two nations were making historic progress on trade issues and narrowly missed achieving a historic breakthrough on Kashmir. But the process started to unravel in August 2008, when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf fell from power.

Some experts say Pakistan is in a strong position because Washington needs its help to fight the Taliban. "This is undoubtedly Pakistan's best moment in Afghanistan since 9/11. They are therefore going into these talks from a position of strength, unlike any time in recent past," said Harsh V. Pant, a defense studies expert who teaches at King's College London.

Few experts expected a breakthrough during Thursday's meeting, which India's home minister had termed "talks about talks." But the session was seen as a first step, and expectations were so low that even the meeting itself was seen as progress.

"Even in the worst of times, you have to talk to your neighbor," said retired Gen. Ashok K. Mehta, a security analyst in New Delhi. "But internally, Pakistan has never looked weaker. Until there is real action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks, all talking will seem futile."

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