- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2003

Over the past several days, India's apparent strategy for dealing with neighboring Pakistan has evolved from brinksmanship to rapprochement. In a much-noted speech on Friday, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said his country was prepared to talk with Pakistan about the conflict over Kashmir. His comments helped ratchet down the tensions between the two nuclear powers.

In their pre-nuclear days, India and Pakistan went to war twice over the disputed territory of Kashmir, which is a predominantly Muslim state in India. After India and Pakistan became independent in 1947 when the countries were drawn up along largely religious lines India pledged to give the Kashmiri people the right to decide through a referendum whether they wanted to be a part of India or Pakistan. The government later backed away from that pledge, and the conflict has wreaked a death toll in the tens of thousands. India has accused Pakistan of harboring terrorist separatists who commit acts of violence in India in the name of Kashmiri self-determination.

But on Friday, Mr. Vajpayee said "We want friendship and brotherhood with our neighbors," adding, "We are ready … [to discuss] both internal and external problems. Guns will not solve the matter, but brotherhood will." In making these comments, Mr. Vajpayee took a critical step in thawing the freeze over Kashmir. And these comments mark a sharp contrast with India's recent rhetoric. A few weeks ago, India maintained that Pakistan was a "fit case" for a pre-emptive strike due to its alleged harboring of terrorists. U.S. officials made quite clear they didn't agree with India's posturing.

The context of India's change in rhetoric is worth noting. On Thursday, U.S. officials said that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage plans to visit India and Pakistan in the next several weeks to ease tensions. India's overture towards Pakistan was probably motivated, in large part, by America's expected mediation. But perhaps more interestingly, the Bush administration may have brokered a quid-pro-quo agreement with India to move talks forward.

Just hours after India reached out towards Pakistan, U.S. officials stepped up pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Kashmir-related terrorism through public statements. India's conciliatory gesture could well have been made in exchange for this type of U.S. pressure on Pakistan.

These developments attest to the potential benefits of U.S. mediation. In an editorial published last week, we called for an eventual U.S. brokering of talks between India and Pakistan. Resolution of the Kashmir issue, like other land disputes with a religious or ethnic element, is highly dependent on the honest brokering of a third party. In recent days, the prospects for mediation on the Kashmir issue look more promising. Given America's close relationship with both India and Pakistan, as well as America's strong interest in establishing stability in the region, it is the natural choice for honest mediation.

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