Evaluating the Vajpayee-Musharraf Meeting in Islamabad

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India’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf are the oddest pair to tackle issues of war, peace and the bomb since Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.

Prime Minister Vajpayee is a soft-spoken poet-politician. Musharraf is a commando-turned-president. When they met last week in Islamabad, memories were fresh of two earlier summits that failed to end their countries’ decades-long bloody conflict over Kashmir, a picturesque territory divided into areas under Indian and Pakistani control.

When they met first, in 1999, the aged Indian leader visited Pakistan on a highly symbolic visit to bury the hatchet. Vajpayee traveled by bus over the land where countless Hindus and Muslims had been massacred after the subcontinent’s partition in 1947. In Lahore, Pakistan, he declared “my country’s deep desire for lasting peace and friendship.” But Musharraf had already set in motion a daring military operation in which Pakistani armed forces would cross the Kashmir divide, sparking a limited war in which nuclear threats were exchanged.

A deep freeze in relations followed but was suddenly broken in 2001 when Vajpayee invited Musharraf to visit India. Their unscripted Agra summit ended in disarray, with dueling press conferences and a midnight flight home by a grim-faced Musharraf. Later in the year, a band of Islamist extremists attacked the Indian Parliament building and for 10 nerve-racking months, 1 million Indian and Pakistani soldiers stood eyeball to eyeball, ready to fight.

In their meeting last week, signs emerged that the third try could possibly be a charm. This time, the script was carefully prepared in advance. In the run-up to the encounter, Pakistan and India had announced initiatives to free prisoners, restore civil aviation links, expand embassy staffs, and resume bus and rail travel — thereby restoring ties that had been severed in previous crises. A cease-fire was announced in November — and has held — along the entire Kashmir divide.

Model summit in Islamabad

The Islamabad summit was a model of high-minded diplomacy. Divisive words were not spoken, substantive private sessions were held and common purpose was evident throughout. Musharraf and Vajpayee promised to fight terrorism, promote trade and work cooperatively on energy projects.

Most striking, Musharraf pledged to prevent the use of territory under Pakistan’s control “to support terrorism in any manner” — the first direct commitment of this kind since the Pakistan-backed insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989, at a cost since then of about 40,000 lives. The closing communique also declared that both leaders were “confident” of reaching a peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Kashmir.

This upbeat, public prediction has no precedent in Indo-Pakistan relations. It reflects either the height of hubris and thus the foreshadowing of another bitter disappointment, or the harbinger of a surprisingly positive engagement.

We will know more in February, when a dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, the nuclear question and other issues is set to begin for the first time since 1997. That dialogue lasted a few months and then crumbled. Will this time be different?

Kashmir remains the biggest sticking point. Pakistan, which was created as a homeland for Muslims, still chafes at India’s control of some Muslim-majority parts of Kashmir. At the same time, India is unlikely to cede any territory in what would appear to be a capitulation to jihadi groups that seek to “liberate” Muslim populations in secular India.

Despite these grievances, both nuclear-armed countries need a breather from war, threats of war, and nuclear brinkmanship. Both leaders are acutely aware of the dangers of unintended escalation and the need for statesmanship. New Delhi sees the enduring enmity of Pakistan as a drag on India’s global ambitions. As for Pakistan, its links to Islamist militants including the Taliban have cost it an ally in Afghanistan, and have closed off two natural trading zones in Central Asia and the subcontinent.

Taking their greatest risk

One reason for measured optimism is that, despite being utterly different in personality, style and background, Musharraf and Vajpayee are both risk takers.

Vajpayee’s commitment to normalize ties with Pakistan cannot be doubted. At 79, slow in step but steadfast in purpose, Vajpayee has declared this will be his last big push for a settlement. He presides over a strong government, is widely predicted to win re-election, and has declared that peace-making is good politics, thereby neutralizing hard-liners within his own ranks.

Musharraf’s juggling act of signing on to Washington’s war against terrorism while continuing to provide safe haven for groups waging a jihad in Kashmir is not sustainable: He risks losing U.S. support as well as his life.

The latest two (of four) assassination attempts against him have coincided with the recent warming trend toward India. One of the suicide bombers involved in an attempt last month to blow up Musharraf’s motorcade was reported to be a member of a group that is active in Kashmir and has been blamed for the deadly December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament.

There may be no better time for Musharraf to pursue a daring full-court press to relax tensions with India, improve Pakistan’s economy, demonstrate nuclear statesmanship, reinforce ties with the United States and rein in militant groups.

Still, Musharraf’s true motives are more of a mystery. No Pakistani leader has sounded more reasonable on Kashmir than Musharraf has in recent months. He has declared his readiness to consider all possible alternatives and even has backed away from Pakistan’s longstanding but impractical insistence that there be a plebiscite in Kashmir to determine popular sentiment.

There is much skepticism in India and elsewhere about these professions of flexibility. Skeptics suspect that Musharraf’s recent pronouncements are tactical maneuvers to ease pressure from the United States instead of representing a real strategic opening to India. If so, Musharraf is risking much for mere tactics, including his life.

But regardless of what Musharraf’s own motives may be, he is not a free agent. A signal that he is somewhat flexible about Kashmir provides openings to his political opponents and enrages militant groups that have enjoyed the hospitality and support of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. And if Musharraf alienates the army leadership, he loses his most powerful base of support.

Kashmir policy

No question hovering over the upcoming talks is more crucial than whether Pakistan’s military establishment is ready to change its course on Kashmir. Much depends on whether the army’s hierarchy realizes the domestic and diplomatic damage that has resulted from its Kashmir policy, which relies heavily on Islamist militants to tie down and punish Indian security forces.

Privately, Pakistani military officers acknowledge that support for the “freedom struggle” is unlikely to dislodge India from the land in Kashmir it values most — the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley — but they believe that New Delhi would ignore their concerns in the absence of such pressure.

Moreover, support for militancy constitutes “payback” for previous indignities suffered at the hands of India, especially the last full-scale war fought in 1971 that resulted in the vivisection of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

While the army’s Kashmir policy succeeds in punishing India, it does so at great cost to Pakistan. Like Pakistan’s support for the Taliban of Afghanistan and like its export of nuclear technology to North Korea and others, the Kashmir policy has badly hurt internal stability, external relations and the national economy.

Chance to make history

Unless Pakistan changes course, it risks becoming indelibly linked to Islamist extremism and nuclear brinkmanship. The dangers of being branded in this way are clear to the army leadership, which helps explain why it has signed on to America’s war against terrorism. The big question now is how capable the army leadership is of recognizing the damage done, too, by its Kashmir policy.

The upcoming talks with India will help answer that question. Pakistan has previously held trade and nuclear-risk-reduction measures hostage to receiving a better outcome on Kashmir. A relaxation of this linkage would help clarify Musharraf’s negotiating mandate and intentions.

The more leeway Musharraf has, the more he and Vajpayee could follow another odd couple, Reagan and Gorbachev, to make history by ending decades of enmity.

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News on January 11, 2004.


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