- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The talks between Pakistan and India have begun at the anticipated, respectable pace. This would be fine, were it not for an overriding factor that negotiators are, in effect, racing against the weather. When the ceasefire between Pakistan and India was established in November, the Himalayas on the border were made virtually unpassable by snow and ice. This phenomenon gave the neighboring governments a reliable respite from the kind of violence that tends to erupt in the disputed region of Kashmir — giving the countries valuable time to inch closer without disruption.

Once the snow melts, the potential for violence will escalate, regardless of the progress made in negotiations between the two countries. But if negotiators do manage to make some notable strides, then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will be more motivated and better poised politically to vigorously police his border with India and block the passage of terrorists. Giving the Kashmiris themselves better hope for peace could bolster the counter-terror efforts of Indian officials in Kashmir.

Now is the time to tackle difficult issues. While a negotiated settlement would improve stability in the long run, it could instigate conflict in the short run. On Monday, during the first day of talks, an official from India’s ruling party in Kashmir, the People’s Democratic Party, was shot and killed by three gunmen in the city of Srinagar. Hours earlier, another Indian official from the same party and two policemen were also killed in Srinagar. This kind of violence would be more easily perpetrated once the snow melts, so negotiators should see themselves in a sprint against spring.

So far, Pakistan and India have reached an agreement, which came yesterday, on the general timetable for the future dialogue on all issues, including Kashmir, confidence-building measures in the nuclear arena, terrorism, drugs and economic cooperation. Today, the two sides are expected to establish a formal timetable. This week’s talks between India and Pakistan were the first in two years.

Given the brinkmanship that prevailed in 2002 and almost instigated a war on two occasions, the current detente is positive. But recent disclosures regarding nuclear exports from Pakistan highlight just how quickly destabilizing developments can emerge on the subcontinent. These developments should focus the minds of the two leaders, as should the coming spring.

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