- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

The leaders of Pakistan and India, to be brought together by a meeting of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SARC) in Islamabad, have been crafting a circuitous path toward peace. The two leaders have worked toward establishing ties between the two countries and improving atmospherics, while not directly addressing the main contention between them: the disputed territory of Indian-controlled Kashmir. But even this incremental approach toward peace is fraught with risk, as the attempts on the life of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suggest.

The SARC summit, which begins tomorrow, will bring together the heads of state of seven South Asian countries. Foreign ministers from SARC countries, who are meeting ahead of the summit, have agreed to create a regional free-trade deal that would have particularly symbolic resonance in Pakistan and India. Since India and Pakistan were created in 1947, they have gone to war three times, with two of those conflicts centering on Kashmir. At least 40,000 people have died over the Kashmir conflict, though the Kashmiris themselves say that a more accurate estimate would be 100,000.

Many observers claim the nationalists of both Pakistan and India will block any ultimate resolution of the dispute. The apparent participation of a suicide bomber from Pakistan’s side of Kashmir in an assassination attempt on Mr. Musharraf recently highlights just how sensitive the issue remains.

Pakistan and India have wisely taken various steps to temper the reciprocated anger between the people of both countries. A SARC trade pact is expected to double the bilateral trade between Pakistan and India. On Thursday, an airliner made the first commercial flight between Pakistan and India in two years. Bus service has also been restored. A cease-fire has been in place since November.

However, any outbreak on the Kashmiri front could wipe out this progress, as history ominously suggests. A SARC free-trade pact was agreed upon in 1996 and was supposed to be operational between 2001 and 2005. But a near-war between India and Pakistan in 2002 delayed its implementation.

Mr. Musharraf has signaled his determination to make real progress on the Kashmiri front, but he can only do so with a mandate from his people. Any resolution he reaches with India must be approved through some quasi-democratic process, such as a referendum, to quiet Islamic and military hardliners.

Pakistan and India are taking cautious steps toward peace that nevertheless endanger the leaders both politically and, at least in Mr. Musharraf’s case, personally, too. The international community should note and reward this progress.

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