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'Pakistan will project it as a diplomatic victory'

June 17, 2009 14:52 IST
I saw several smiling faces in Washington as news came from far away Yekaterinburg (till 1991 Sverdlovsk, named after the Bolshevik leader, Yakov Sverdlov) the city over which Gary Powers' U2 spy plane was shot down, that India had agreed to resume the dialogue with Pakistan.

Several of them, think tankers, had advocated resumption of the dialogue between India and Pakistan as an important ingredient in President Obama's Afpak policy.

It did not matter if India insisted only on discussing terrorism or if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reprimanded President Zardari in front of the cameras. Resumption of dialogue it was for the US State Department and Pakistan, a gain after the dialogue had derailed following the Mumbai attacks. They did not want any credit for the new development, but they clearly relished it.

"How can Pakistan accept the fact that the dialogue was only about terrorism against India?" I asked one of them.

"That is not a problem. Pakistan will claim that the dialogue is on Kashmir because terrorism is an issue related to Kashmir. They can advance the argument that they are simply supporting the liberation struggle in Kashmir. As far as they are concerned, the resumption of dialogue lets them off the hook as far as Mumbai is concerned. Pakistan will project it as a diplomatic victory," he said.

That is precisely what Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi did in his statement to the press:

'The two foreign secretaries will meet at mutually convenient dates to discuss the steps taken on either side to deal with extremism and terrorism. From those discussions, the political leadership will re-engage at Sharm-el-Sheikh (the Egypt town where the next Non Aligned Summit will be held).'

He went on to talk about India and Pakistan being victims of terrorism and about the joint anti-terror mechanism that was set up in Havana, ironically, at another Non Aligned Summit venue. He did not give in even on the question of the release of the terrorist, who masterminded the Mumbai attacks.

'We could not interfere in the lawful release of Jamaaut Dawa chief Hafeez Mohammed Saeed. The provincial government is contemplating appealing the court decision,' was his comment.

In other words, the highly sophisticated construction that Foreign Secretary Menon placed on the decision to talk about terrorism without resuming the dialogue was deliberately drowned out by Pakistan and the United States. Under Secretary William Burns must have reported 'Mission accomplished!' within days after his recent visit.

He had openly advocated resumption of the dialogue and Pakistan too had echoed it. It is also a moment of minor victory for Richard Holbrooke. After all, disengaging Pakistan from the Indian border and committing its might to combat Taliban forces is part of his strategy and it is important for him to relax the stand-off between India and Pakistan. He would like to put Mumbai behind him and move ahead.

The beginning of the dialogue, the terms, the scope and objectives of which were left to India and Pakistan to decide on, was also necessary for the United States to push India and Pakistan gently to move towards the formula reported to have been identified in the back channel talks.

An old Kashmir hand, Ambassador Howard Schaffer, has just published a book entitled Limits of Influence, tracing the history of US efforts to solve the Kashmir issue. Although the title reflects American exasperation over the limits of its influence on the issue, Schaffer says in the introduction to the book that the time has, in fact, come for a more active role for the US in Kashmir.

He argues that the improved relations between India and the United States and the progress made in back channel talks make it the right moment to push for a solution. No wonder William Burns pulled out the old formula of a solution acceptable to the Kashmiri people.

We had heard this before, as Foreign Secretary Menon notes, but part of the reason for improvement in India-US relations was the fact that President Bush and his men did not use the K word. He would not even buy a cashmere shawl for his wife for fear of irritating his Indian friends, according to Washington sources.

Indian diplomats have made sure in the Yekaterinburg deal that all of India's concerns were taken care of. But Pakistan and the United States will claim a minor victory while India highlights the small print with luminous markers.

The test, of course, is whether Pakistan will do more to punish the guilty men of Mumbai before the peace process really commences. Pakistan is in no position to take decisions of substance for some more time to come and there is no reason why we should give comfort to anyone that, as on previous occasions, India will engage in the peace process, regardless of the heinous terrorist attacks against India.

T P Sreenivasan, a former Indian diplomat, is presently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

T P Sreenivasan