India, Pakistan talks seen good for Afghan efforts

ISLAMABAD Sun Feb 7, 2010 2:55pm IST

An Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldier opens a gate at the border with Pakistan in Suchetgarh, southwest of Jammu, in this January 12, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta/Files

An Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldier opens a gate at the border with Pakistan in Suchetgarh, southwest of Jammu, in this January 12, 2010 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Mukesh Gupta/Files

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - An easing of tension between India and Pakistan should help U.S.-led efforts to stabilise Afghanistan though no one is expecting any quick breakthrough between the nuclear-armed rivals.

India has proposed the first high-level bilateral talks since it suspended a peace process with Pakistan after Pakistan-based militants attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008.

Officials from the two countries are discussing an agenda and when and where to talk.

The government had been insisting that Pakistan bring to justice those behind the Mumbai attacks before resuming talks. Pakistan has arrested seven suspects but their trial has made little headway.

Despite that, the government is now proposing talks, partly because of pressure from the United States as it struggles to bring stability and look for a way out of Afghanistan, said Pakistani analyst Ershad Mahmud.

"A lot of people in the U.S. believe that peace in Afghanistan runs through Kashmir so it's very important for the U.S. and the whole international community to see that India and Pakistan are talking," said Mahmud.

The divided Muslim majority Himalayan region of Kashmir, which both countries rule in part but claim in full, is at the core of decades of hostility between the South Asian neighbours.

That hostility has engendered what analysts see as a proxy war in Afghanistan, with Pakistan secretly encouraging the Taliban in its opposition to the Indian-backed Kabul government.

India's offer of talks comes after global powers endorsed an Afghan plan at a conference in London late last month to seek reconciliation with the Taliban in which Pakistan is expected to play a major role, largely in nudging the Taliban to talk.

Pakistan, fearful of being squeezed between India on its eastern border and a pro-Indian Afghan government in the west, has been speaking out about its concern about India's growing influence in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, reluctant to withdraw troops from its Indian border and send them to fight militants on its Afghan border while tension with India is high, says Indians in Afghanistan are aiding separatists in its southwestern province of Baluchistan.

RED LINE

Underlining its determination to keep India out of any Afghan peace process, Pakistan managed at the London talks to shoot down a proposal to set up a regional council on Afghanistan, including India.

The prospect of losing leverage over events in Afghanistan, in particular any peace process that could see the Taliban back in Kabul in some capacity, was another factor behind India's willingness to resume talks with Pakistan, said Mahmud.

"India has a lot of vital interests, particularly security concerns, in Afghanistan so that has also played a major role in pushing India to resume dialogue," he said.

A direct Indian security role in Afghanistan represented a "red line" for Pakistan, the international security company Stratfor said in a recent paper.

"India knows the only way it can edge into the Afghanistan dialogue and hope to influence the Taliban negotiations is to first reopen its diplomatic channel with Pakistan," it said.

But both Indian and Pakistani analysts said, given the deep suspicion on both sides, there was unlikely to be quick progress on main disagreements such as Kashmir and the sharing of water from rivers flowing out of the Himalayas.

"I doubt there will be any tangible progress on any of the contentious issues in the next few months," said Tanveer Ahmed Khan, head of Pakistan's Institute of Strategic Studies

Pakistan wants to see the resumption of a broad so-called composite dialogue covering all issues, including Kashmir, while India has been stressing the need for action on Mumbai.

India had offered open-ended talks on all outstanding issues affecting peace and security, emphasising counter-terrorism, Indian officials said last week.

"What would constitute incremental progress is Pakistan convincing India it is taking steps to try the Mumbai attack planners and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure on its soil," Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary, told Reuters.

Another militant attack on Indian soil could see tension surge again and could bring calls in India for military action.

"I do not see anything coming out of these talks unless there is some change in intent ... that could change the ground situation," said Ajai Sahni, chief of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.

Pakistan has been losing patience with what it sees as Indian intransigence and its holding of the peace process hostage to Pakistani action on militants.

"Unless India is actually intent on a serious and meaningful dialogue on all conflictual issues, merely resuming the dialogue to fool powerful allies will achieve little," Pakistan's Nation newspaper said in a weekend editorial.

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad and Krittivas Mukherjee in New Delhi; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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