- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

India’s recent overtures to Pakistan couldn’t be more politically inconvenient for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Until recently, Pakistan had been calling for talks on the Kashmir issue, while India was the ostensible spoiler. Now, India is seen courting a rapprochement — a move which pleases the United States and puts Gen. Musharraf on the spot.

In Pakistan, the intelligence community and military benefit from the cold war with India, and are unnerved by moves to minimize the tension over Kashmir. New Delhi’s distancing from Pakistan in the wake of a December 2001 suicide attack on India’s parliament suited these forces just fine. Gen. Musharraf’s gruff response to India’s latest outreach was a nod to them. But a thaw is in the long-term vital interest of both India and Pakistan, is important for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and significant to all countries within radioactive range of these two nuclear powers.

Gen. Musharraf has Pakistan’s interests in his sights as he deals with India, but is also trying to accommodate some still-powerful (and potentially subversive) elements in his country. India’s patience with Pakistan signals a respect for this balance, but there is still a danger New Delhi won’t resist a temptation to overplay its stronger hand, derived from its control of its portion of Kashmir and its economic and military superiority.

On Wednesday, India visibly upgraded its peace initiative by appointing the respected L.K. Advani, its deputy prime minister, as senior envoy for negotiations with Kashmiri separatists. India also proposed bolstering or restoring rail, air and sea links with Pakistan and establishing a bus line between India’s and Pakistan’s portion of Kashmir. New Delhi also suggested resuming sporting contacts, a move cheered by cricket fans and busily reported by the foreign media. Pakistan is considering the offer, but voiced disappointment over India’s unwillingness to discuss the dispute over Kashmir.

India’s gesture was particularly noteworthy given the recent context. During a September U.N. meeting, Indian-Pakistani relations took another hostile turn. Gen. Musharraf delivered his defense of what he called Kashmiri freedom fighters, and called on India to address their grievances to stem attacks. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee accused Gen. Musharraf of diplomatic blackmail through terrorism. The damage done was not immediately apparent, but confrontations between the two countries are always cause for concern.

The State Department has tried to steward better bilateral relations between the two countries, but didn’t visibly react to the U.N. spat, although Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage addressed the issue during his visit to Pakistan earlier this month. India’s outreach marks a de-escalation of hostilities. It is unclear to what degree the United States prodded New Delhi in this direction, but the government was reportedly cheered by the Bush administration’s decision to risk Pakistan’s ire by classifying Indian Dawood Ibrahim a terrorist and proving he lives in Karachi by publishing his Pakistani passport number and phone number in Karachi. Pakistan had long denied he was living in the country. To India, the move proved Washington was willing to take a principled stand on terrorism, despite its keen desire to cajole Islamabad’s counter-terror cooperation. If Washington’s handling of the Ibrahim matter indeed helped bring about India’s overture, Washington should be saluted.

Washington should continue helping to repair the thaw. Gen. Musharraf should try to capitalize on India’s outreach and look for ways to engage the country without provoking a backlash. New Delhi should be careful not to push Gen. Musharraf beyond the political breaking point.

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