- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009


The prime ministers of India and Pakistan pledged Thursday to restart reconciliation talks, but last year’s terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai continue to cloud prospects for normalization.

Pakistani officials say the United States has been pressuring their government to revive talks and prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks, who came from Pakistan.

Meeting on the sidelines of a summit of nonaligned nations in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, issued a joint statement that sounded conciliatory.

The statement said Islamabad promised to do “everything in its power” to punish the Mumbai attackers. In a concession to Pakistan, the statement said the nuclear-armed rivals agreed that action on terrorism should not be a precondition for general dialogue on normalizing ties.

After the meeting, however, Mr. Singh insisted that any resumption of talks rests on Pakistan bringing the Mumbai attackers to justice.

“The composite dialogue process cannot resume unless and until terrorist acts, like the one which shook Mumbai, are properly accounted for and perpetrators of these heinous crimes are brought to book,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Singh as telling Indian journalists.

Speaking to summit delegates Wednesday, Mr. Gilani said he hoped for “comprehensive engagement” with New Delhi. But Mr. Singh repeated his demand that Pakistan dismantle the “infrastructure of terrorism” before meaningful dialogue is possible.

The meeting was the third high-level encounter between Indian and Pakistani officials since 10 purportedly Pakistan-based terrorists lay siege to India’s financial center for four days in November - an attack that left 166 people dead.

The Obama administration has been pressing Pakistan to take concrete actions against militants who have launched attacks in India from Pakistani soil, several officials at the Pakistan Foreign Office told The Washington Times.

“The Americans have been telling us that it is very important for Pakistan to take action against anti-India militant organizations … to convince India to come to terms with Pakistan,” an official said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to disclose information to media. “We have information that the U.S. government is also doing its efforts to bring India to the negotiating table with Pakistan,” he added.

U.S. officials deny Washington played any role in bringing Indian and Pakistani leaders to the talks in Egypt but welcomed the meeting as a positive step.

“In terms of what wed like to see come out of it, obviously, we want to see greater understanding and progress particularly on the issue of Pakistan moving forward with prosecution of those responsible for the Mumbai attacks,” Robert O. Blake, the assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, said in Washington on Wednesday.

Pakistan will be among the top subjects of discussion when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives in India on a three-day visit Friday. She is to spend the first two days in Mumbai.

Pakistani analysts say the reasoning behind the U.S. pressure could be that this is an opportune time to restart the India-Pakistan talks. The Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency are preoccupied with the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistani army and the ISI have been viewed in the past as opposed to normalization of ties with India unless the fate of Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed by both countries, is settled.

“In this situation, the military and the ISI would not be able to meddle with the talks process between the two countries to stabilize the region,” said Ijaz Khan of the University of Peshawar.

In June, Pakistani and Indian leaders agreed to revive the stalled peace process when Mr. Singh and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

However, since that meeting, India has insisted that the talks focus on terrorism, while Pakistan has been emphasizing a more broad-based dialogue that would include Kashmir and water disputes.

The process of normalization stalled after India accused Pakistani militant groups, primarily Lashkar-e-Taiba, of staging the Mumbai attacks.

Indian security forces killed all but one of the attackers, and the surviving suspect is on trial in a Mumbai court.

After pressure from India and the United States, Pakistan banned several militant groups and arrested several leaders of Lashkar. But in June, a Pakistani court ordered the release of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the founder of Lashkar. The Pakistani government appealed the ruling last week.

Unlike the previous Indian coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Singh’s Congress Party-led government is more willing to improve ties with Pakistan.

Similarly, in Islamabad, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party has been traditionally in favor of better relations with India. Sources in the party said Mr. Zardari has directed ministers and officials not to talk ill of India.

However, Mr. Singh faces growing pressure not to revive talks with Pakistan.

“Restoring dialogue at this stage does not make sense,” G. Parthasarathy, a former envoy to Pakistan, said in June, after the Lashkar founder was ordered freed.

Brajesh Mishra, a former national security adviser to the nationalist-led government, also urged Mr. Singh not to restart talks.

“Pakistan has not acted against the perpetrators of Mumbai attacks,” Mr. Mishra told India Abroad News Service. “They have not abandoned their support to terrorism as an instrument of policy. Nothing has changed.”

The United States has been pressing Pakistan to move more troops to the western border with Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda are a growing threat, instead of massing them on the eastern border with India.

Mr. Zardari agrees.

“I do not consider India a military threat … but Taliban are a threat, an international threat … to our way of life,” Mr. Zardari told EuroNews in Brussels last month. “And at the moment, Im focused on the Taliban.”

But Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani reportedly has refused on several occasions to move troops from the Indian border to the Afghan frontier.

Pakistani military and strategic thinkers still think the main threat to the country comes from India, with which Pakistan fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.

Desikan Thirunarayanapuram in Washington contributed to this report.

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