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Talk us out of this mess

Delhi’s ‘won’t-talk’ posture has ended up handing Pakistan a disincentive rather than an incentive to cooperate. non-engagement is unsustainable, writes Maleeha Lodhi.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2009 21:17 IST

A year after the terrorist attack in Mumbai rocked relations between India and Pakistan, the diplomatic impasse persists between the two nuclear neighbours. Formal talks, halted by Delhi in the wake of the Mumbai attack, are yet to resume. The suspension of the peace process has reinforced the wearingly familiar on-off pattern that has characterised the bilateral engagement for over half a century. Today the normalisation process is frozen, and bilateral exchanges have been reduced to meetings or re-statements of positions on the sidelines of multilateral conferences. The promise of Sharm-el-Sheikh — where the prime ministers of the two countries met in July — has been lost in the fog of mutual mistrust.

At a time when Pakistan’s counter-militancy efforts have entered a decisive phase, after a successful campaign in Swat and the military offensive in South Waziristan nearing conclusion, calmer relations between Islamabad and Delhi can help consolidate the efforts to defeat terrorism. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani put it plainly: Pakistan’s focus on countering terrorism is being affected by the continuing tensions with India.

India continues to reject Pakistan’s argument that the peace process should not be held hostage to acts of terrorism. Delhi is still insisting on prior and decisive action by Islamabad before talks can be revived. For its part, Islamabad wants the unconditional resumption of the composite dialogue even as it seeks to reassure Delhi of its commitment to deal with the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack. Delhi has also turned down the offer of re-starting the back-channel that operated between the two countries during 2005-2008.

Doubts about the fate of the formal dialogue process have been accompanied by uncertainty about the structure and agenda of future talks. Indian officials have questioned the utility of the composite dialogue, indicating that they now envisage future talks to be recast around the single issue of terrorism. This notion of a selected and fragmented dialogue has only deepened the impasse. The broad-gauge structure of Pakistan-India diplomatic engagement drawn up in 1997 and sustained — with some fits and starts — over the past 12 years, enabled multi-layered talks that covered the entire gamut of issues, reflecting the two countries' differing agendas and priorities.

For now, Delhi’s ‘won’t-talk’ posture has ended up handing Pakistan a disincentive rather than an incentive to cooperate. Non-engagement is unsustainable. It translates into a do-nothing approach that is a gain-nothing one. There are many reasons that argue for a resumption of the peace process. Four are especially important. One, it’s in an environment of reduced tensions with India that Pakistan can focus decisively to deal with militancy. Pakistan’s ability to address the militant threat requires stable relations with India involving efforts by both countries to address the causes of their adversarial relationship.

Two, Pakistan can’t attain its overarching objective of economic stabilisation — nor can India achieve its full economic potential — while engaged in confrontation. Three, there is a manifest sense in both countries that there is no military solution to the Kashmir dispute or to other problems. Kargil and the 2001-02 military stand-off served to confirm this to both sides.

And four, the two countries need to carefully manage their relations in a nuclearised environment. The strategic relationship between the nuclear neighbours remains undefined and potentially unstable. There is no substitute for dialogue for stability here.

Ultimately the future of the dialogue will depend on whether the two countries can address and overcome their differences and identify and build on the areas of convergence. The former will have to include Kashmir, nuclear-military issues and postures, and Afghanistan, while the latter can embrace trade, regional economic cooperation and North-South issues as also common threats including terrorism.

What will determine stable relations is whether a habit of dialogue to solve problems can be built. The alternative to dialogue is the perpetuation of the cycle of mistrust, tension and confrontation that will mire the region in a stalemate in which everyone will lose.

Maleeha Lodhi is former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics, Harvard University, US

The views expressed by the author are personal