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Needed: quiet diplomacy

By Teresita Schaffer
October 26, 2005 20:57 IST
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Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Teresita Schaffer concludes her column on the India-Pakistan peace process by explaining why dramatic breakthroughs are unlikely in the near future. 

Part I: It's a slow road to peace

From the US perspective, the most important development on the non-Kashmir agenda was the announcement on August 7 of an agreement on nuclear risk reduction. India and Pakistan agreed to notify each other of missile tests; they revived a hotline between the two countries' foreign secretaries and agreed to hold a structured hotline call once a month.

This is not the first time that India and Pakistan have put in place communications measures designed to prevent misunderstandings. The key test of their effectiveness will be whether they continue to work even if overall relations sour.

Officials from India and Pakistan made useful progress in defining possible compromise options on their boundary dispute at Sir Creek, on the Arabian Sea coast. The World Bank named a Swiss professor, Raymond Lafitte, as a neutral expert to address their disagreement over India's plans for a dam and power plant at Baglihar, on the Chenab River in Kashmir.

There were also unconfirmed reports that India might be considering sales of power from the Baglihar plant to Pakistan in exchange for Pakistan withdrawing its objections.

Baglihar report to be binding on Pak, India 

Technical discussions on the steps that might precede demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier continued, but no decisions were made. India and Pakistan exchanged a number of trade delegations, and press reports suggested that one bank from each country might soon be allowed to open a branch in the other.

Discussions on possible gas pipelines across Pakistan into India continued, going into deepening detail on the financial and technical aspects. As in the past, both countries have found it prudent to keep the discussions open to several alternative pipeline routes, in light of Washington's objections to a pipeline originating in Iran. However, the most focused discussions concerned the Iran pipeline, widely regarded as the most cost-effective alternative.

US not against Iran-India pipeline: Govt  

In the weeks before the Musharraf-Singh meeting in New York, all signs seemed to point to a new breakthrough. Both sides released a total of some 500 prisoners; the Indian government announced that it was withdrawing the Border Security Force from the city of Srinagar; and the press reported impending deals on Siachen and on water issues. In the end, there were no dramatic announcements on any of these subjects.

As it turned out, the timing was not good in either country for a dramatic announcement from New York. Musharraf's speech to the United Nations included a reference to the 1948– 1949 UN resolutions on Kashmir, despite Musharraf's periodic statements in the past few months that he was ready to "move beyond" the resolutions. This undoubtedly touched some raw nerves in India.

In Pakistan, Musharraf's critics on the Islamic right generally oppose resolving issues unrelated to Kashmir without visible progress on Kashmir. But both countries did announce, at the end of September, that they would open a bus service between Lahore, Pakistan, and nearby Amritsar, India.

The absence of a breakthrough in New York disappointed friends of both India and Pakistan, but it by no means signals the decline or end of the peace process. In the India-Pakistan dialogue, as in other difficult peace processes, it is normal for periods of energy and progress to alternate with episodes of slower activity.

Complete coverage: PM's visit to NY

Since the current India- Pakistan effort started with the November 2003 ceasefire, it has followed this pattern. During the past 22 months, the most effective antidote to a flagging dialogue has been the personal attention of the two national leaders, both of them clearly committed to continuing to talk and hopeful that talks can lead to a good result. The upcoming visit of Prime Minister Singh to Pakistan may be the occasion for another high-level injection of energy.

The fact that much of the action during the past six months has involved contacts with and among Kashmiris is encouraging. They are the constituency that has been most persistently left out of the dialogue. With both leaders strongly interested in keeping a process going, this is a time for the United States and others outside the region to focus on quiet encouragement rather than high-profile diplomacy.

'Kashmir is falling off the American radar' 

The visible part of this process consists of small but concrete steps: expanded contacts among Kashmiris and between ever-expanding groups of Indians and Pakistanis, more frequent discussions between them and national leaders in Islamabad and Delhi, forward movement on the hardy perennial items on the India-Pakistan agenda.

This is probably the best we can expect in the next year or two. Expanded political and popular contacts can help change the environment and facilitate future progress. Economic peace-building measures could do the same thing.

If an eventual dramatic political breakthrough is possible, especially one that redefines the political relationships among India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, it will take longer. It will need to take shape in months or years of private discussions and with a massive exercise in political leadership. The personal relationship the national leaders develop now may turn out to be their most important asset.


(Teresita Schaffer wrote this for the October 1, 2005, edition of South Asia Monitor, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.)

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Teresita Schaffer