Ties Improve as Vajpayee Visits Pakistan and Musharraf Escapes Assassination Attempts

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Something refreshingly different is happening in South Asia.  India and Pakistan are beginning to stitch together ties that were severed two years ago when Islamic extremists linked to groups based in Pakistan shot up the parliament building in New Delhi.  In recent weeks, both countries have declared and maintained a ceasefire along the Kashmir divide, freed prisoners, restored civil aviation links, expanded embassy staffs, and agreed to resume bus and rail travel to improve people-to-people contacts.  Pakistan has also reduced barriers to trade with India, something New Delhi has long desired.  Even more significantly, militant crossings of the Kashmir divide are way down, even for the winter season, according to Indian reports. 

These positive steps have received little coverage in the Western media, where story lines have mostly been confined to the two recent assassination attempts on Pakistani President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf.  Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s upcoming trip to Pakistan for a regional summit meeting has hardly been mentioned in the Western print and electronic media.  This issue brief explores possible linkages between Musharraf’s close calls, Vajpayee’s scheduled trip from January 4-6 to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, and the warming trend on the Subcontinent.

New Delhi and Islamabad are both ready for a thaw.  India and Pakistan have gone through a very rough passage since acquiring nuclear weapons.  In 1999, they fought a limited border war, and their two armies were mobilized to fight for almost an entire year in 2002 following the attack on the Indian parliament.  National leaders appear to feel that the time is ripe for some steps toward normalization.  These steps have come quickly because Musharraf and Vajpayee are both temperamentally inclined to be in a hurry on Indo-Pak relations. 

But when good things happen between India and Pakistan, bad actors are energized to halt progress.  Good news stories in South Asia are usually followed by negative headlines.  The usual datelines for bad news are in Kashmir, Karachi, New Delhi or Mumbai, which have experienced significant acts of terror; along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where US forces are countering a resurgence of the Taliban; or most recently, along the motorcade route between Musharraf’s office in Islamabad and his Army compound in Rawalpindi.  Coincidentally or not, the last two (of four) attempts on Musharraf’s life have coincided with the recent warming trend toward India.    

Vajpayee’s scheduled visit to Islamabad therefore comes at a critical time.  If this trip is not used to gird Indo-Pak relations against the shocks to come and if it is not used to further accelerate the process of normalization, it will be a wasted opportunity.

Unfortunately, the track record of Vajpayee-Musharraf meetings is not good.  At Lahore in 1999, Vajpayee made a significant effort to improve ties, only to be rebuffed by Musharraf’s military adventurism in Kashmir.  At Agra in 2001, Musharraf was prepared to endorse a formula for resumed dialogue, but a divided Indian leadership couldn’t close on the deal.  Vajpayee and Musharraf are both risk takers, but the similarity stops there.  In terms of background and temperament, they are the oddest pairing of nuclear rivals since Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.  Vajpayee writes poetry; Musharraf was trained as a commando.  When these two leaders meet at an unscripted summit, observers have come to expect a surprise ending. 

There are welcome signs this time around that summitry will not be unscripted.  This is essential because the situation in Kashmir is also very fluid, with an umbrella group of separatist leaders splitting into moderate and pro-Pakistan factions.  New Delhi has finally agreed to send a political heavyweight, the hawkish Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, to talk directly to the moderate faction. In the past, political assassinations have accompanied hopeful developments in Kashmir. 

Both Musharraf and Vaypayee need something more tangible from each other if a peace process can gain traction.  The initiatives taken so far have a strong element of one-upmanship, with public, not private, diplomacy taking center stage.  So far, small, positive steps have served as a substitute for direct, sustained engagement.  Progress has been conspicuously absent on the two most pressing issues – Kashmir and nuclear risk reduction.

The transition from tactical maneuver to strategic engagement cannot happen unless the toughest issues are tackled.  Musharraf needs a resumption of dialogue with India on Kashmir and other subjects.  Vajpayee needs sustained efforts by the Pakistani military and intelligence services to stop facilitating infiltration across the Kashmir divide.  Both leaders need measures to reduce nuclear dangers.  These are unlikely to happen until New Delhi engages substantively on the Kashmir issue, and Islamabad stops holding nuclear risk reduction hostage to a satisfactory settlement. 

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