Pakistan, India resume dialogue, but not peace talks

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 16, 2009 

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan and India agreed Thursday to restart talks and unfreeze relations, but New Delhi refused to revive full-blown peace negotiations immediately between the nuclear-armed adversaries.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went further than expected in reaching out to Pakistan and provoked stinging criticism from hawks at home, a country still reeling from a terrorist attack last year in Mumbai allegedly organized by militants from Pakistan.

U.S. pressure helped push New Delhi into the meeting, which took place Thursday on the sidelines of a summit of developing countries in Egypt.

Islamabad promised to bring the planners of the Mumbai assault to justice, India's key demand for resuming the formal peace talks known as the "composite dialogue." The Mumbai bombing led to a halt in the talks.

Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, agreed that the composite dialogue, when it begins again, wouldn't be linked to Pakistani action against terrorism, a major concession from New Delhi.

"Prime Minister Singh said that India was ready to discuss all issues with Pakistan, including all outstanding issues," a joint communique said, in a reference to the Kashmir region, the core quarrel between the countries. "Both prime ministers recognized that dialogue is the only way forward."

The U.S. hopes that improved relations between New Delhi and Islamabad will allow Pakistan to redirect its military focus from tensions on its eastern border with India to the menace from the Taliban and al Qaida on its western border with Afghanistan. The summit breakthrough came on the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to India.

Singh said after the meeting that the composite dialogue couldn't begin "unless and until terrorist heads which shook Mumbai are properly accounted for, (and) perpetrators of these heinous crimes are brought to book."

Singh's concession to the principle of rekindling talks was a personal gamble. In Indian eyes, Pakistan hasn't shown convincingly that it's prosecuting the alleged orchestrators of the Mumbai attacks. Singh, however, is in a strong position at home after a surprising triumph in recent national elections.

Bahukutumbi Raman, a former head of India's Research and Analysis Wing spy agency, was one of Singh's critics Thursday.

"This agreement, which seeks to whitewash years of Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism against Indian civilians and security forces, will make all those who died at the hands of the terrorists shed tears in heaven," he said.

The major part of Pakistan's army remains stationed along or near its border with India. While the U.S. would like to see the soldiers redeployed to the Afghan border, a significant move appears unlikely anytime soon because the Pakistani army continues to see India as its main threat.

The two countries agreed that the top bureaucrats from their foreign ministries "should meet as often as necessary," and the foreign ministers will meet at the United Nations General Assembly in September. By then, it should be clearer whether Pakistan is serious about trying the suspects in the Mumbai attack.

Pakistan appeared confident, however, that the lower-level talks India had agreed to would transform into formal peace negotiations, which would tackle the main disagreements over territory and water resources and improve bilateral trade.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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