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India and Pakistan on the brink

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

NEW DELHI

Everything is going right these days for India, except for one big problem: It is living next to a Pakistan that is coming apart politically, and Indian leaders insist with a tone of resignation that there's nothing they can do about it.

Starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, top Indian officials know that their booming democracy is endangered by the growing chaos across the border. They say that they're willing to revive back-channel negotiations with Islamabad to resolve the long-festering problem of Kashmir. They favor confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of war between these two nuclear-armed nations.

And then, in the next breath, Indian officials insist that such positive steps won't make any difference. The Pakistani military doesn't want any reduction in tensions, they argue. The civilian government is crumbling and incapable of making a deal. Even Singh, long an advocate of better relations with Pakistan, is said to have concluded that hopes for better relations are "wishful thinking."

A few hundred miles away in Islamabad, you'd hear the same bleak message from Pakistani military and political leaders. Yes, they know that the immediate threat to Pakistan is from Islamic militants, not India. Yes, they know that restoring a back-channel dialogue with New Delhi might ease tensions. But no, they don't see any way to step back from the brink. The Indians, in their view, are conspiring to undermine Pakistan.

Welcome to the world's most dangerous zero-sum game. The sad fact is that India and Pakistan, separated at birth in 1947, are locked in what seems like a blood feud. You hear the same language of suspicion in prosperous New Delhi that you do in embattled Islamabad.

I spent three days here talking with Indian leaders as part of a dialogue sponsored by the Aspen Strategy Group and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Discussing the India-Pakistan dispute with these officials reminded me of the fable of Tantalus, whose punishment by the gods was that food and drink were always just out of reach. A rapprochement between India and Pakistan is that elusive: You can imagine what the reduction of tensions would look like but you can't grasp it.

This is a problem that might seem ripe for U.S. mediation. Washington has close ties with both countries, after all, and it could act as an honest broker on issues such as Kashmir, which is ruled by India but claimed by both countries. But Indians say that American intervention could just make matters worse - poisoning public opinion against any deal that emerged.

U.S. diplomats are walking on eggshells: The Kashmir problem is so sensitive that American officials sometimes refer to it as "the K word," as if the very subject were unmentionable. Washington has gently encouraged dialogue between the two countries, but two meetings last year between their foreign ministers collapsed amid mutual recriminations. They will have another chance next month at a regional gathering in Bhutan, but nobody seems very hopeful.

The Indians watch Pakistan's political instability with grim resignation. The root problem, they argue, is that the Pakistani military is unwilling to sever its links with Islamic terrorists. Until the Pakistanis break this insurgency, they will be at its mercy. Dialogue with India won't make any difference, they insist.

"The last thing we want to see is Pakistan slide into instability," says one top Indian official, but he cautions that there is little that India or America can do. "It's Pakistan's internal problem. And that, we can't fix."

As India celebrates its own economic success, there is a slight tone of South Asian schadenfreude about Pakistan's troubles. "There is one school of thought that says, 'If they [the Pakistanis] are committing suicide, then you don't have to murder them,'" the top official concedes. "But the consequences of that are horrible."

I came away from these discussions feeling that Indian leaders are being shortsighted: If Pakistan descends further into violence and chaos, India will suffer from the fallout. And with these two bitter rivals, there is always the risk of nuclear war. If I were a newly prosperous Indian, I'd want to help my ailing neighbor as a matter of self-protection.

But try making that argument to Indian officials. "You have to recognize that some problems can't be solved," counsels one prominent Indian. Officials here don't want American mediation, and they think outreach to Pakistan won't do any good. Meanwhile, the South Asian tinderbox keeps on getting hotter.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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