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'We need to avert terror attacks and buy time'

By Sheela Bhatt
February 23, 2010 12:36 IST
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As India and Pakistan's foreign secretaries are set to meet in New Delhi on Thursday, the first time since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008, opinion is divided sharply within the country on the efficacy of the talks. Sheela Bhatt presents both sides

New Delhi's initiative for a resumption of dialogue has surprised the moderates and professionals, and infuriated the hawks in India. Defence Minister A K Antony has called it a conscious initiative by India which will have a huge bearing on regional peace and security, while former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal has said, 'The augury for the forthcoming foreign secretary level talks is not good. While in no mood to meet India's demands, Pakistan has conjured up contentious demands of its own, whether on Balochistan or water issues, so that it can continue its confrontation with us in good Pakistani conscience.'

However, a senior diplomat and a member of the National Security Advisory Board told "The resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue is a subplot. The core issue is the stability of the entire region by pushing Pakistan to act against Taliban. No government can say this openly, but the fact is that India does not want Pakistan to use the alibi that it has to remain seriously engaged on its eastern border due to tensions with India."

Some experts see the resumption of peace talks as India's contribution towards President Barrack Obama-led endgame of the Afghanistan war.

When asked about the severe criticism for initiating dialogue without gaining anything substantial in its investigation after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, a senior officer in the Prime Minister's Office said, "It's high time we change the grammar of politics within India and with our neighbour. We should ignore the noise factories of experts and retired officials that go into overdrive as and when India proposes dialogue with Pakistan."

It seems that New Delhi has weighed its options and found that the no-dialogue-with-Pakistan policy adopted after the 26/11 attacks has entered the phase of diminishing returns. The communication breakdown doesn't reduce the risk of terrorism; rather, it creates a dangerous vacuum which terrorists find advantageous.

However, there is another angle that has raises questions.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader and former deputy prime minister L K Advani was unhappy at the sudden move to talk. He argued that the government had made it clear that there would be no talks unless there was progress on the 26/11 investigations from the Pakistani side. Despite no substantial gains in that direction, if talks are resumed it means there is external pressure. Advani said that he felt a "nudge" from the United States must be the reason for the talks.

"The pressure from the US cannot be ruled out," said K Subrahmanyam, one of India's foremost experts on strategic issues. But, he adds, Indians need to think what is going to happen in our region when the US surge starts in three months from now to 2011 in Afghanistan. When there will be many more drone attacks on Taliban hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, what will happen to the immediate neighbourhood?

"There is the possibility of terrorist attacks on India and we need to prevent it by all means available to us," said Subrahmanyam. "I don't know why the government has proposed the resumption of talks with Pakistan, but all I can say is that I envisage that it could be a tactical move by India. We need to avert terror attacks and buy time."

Experts are divided on the issue.

Sibal argued, "What was sought to be done explicitly at Sharm el-Sheikh [in Egypt, where India and Pakistan issued a joint statement] is being done implicitly with the latest initiative. We say that we will raise the issue of terrorism with Pakistan, but what is the basis for expecting a better response from them this time? What new pressure will we bring to bear on Pakistan?"

Although Indians in general seem largely dissatisfied with Pakistan's lack of action in taming anti-India terrorists on its soil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems determined to open the windows of communication with Islamabad. It is commonly argued in New Delhi that just as he remained unruffled by the severe criticism when his team negotiated the US-India nuclear deal in 2005, in his second term in power he will put his best foot forward to achieve peace between India and Pakistan.

His own party members argue that Singh believes in the spirit demonstrated at Sharm el-Sheikh in his talks with his Pakistan counterpart where he showed readiness to disconnect the attacks by Pakistani terrorists from the peace talks with the government of Pakistan.

India is aware that the current talks will be without outcome because in Pakistan, the civilian government's power seems limited; and maneuvering space is with only the army.

A former ambassador to the US told that he thought this is suitable for India to buy time.

He argued, "When Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani showed willingness to mediate between the US and the Afghan Taliban [Maulavi Jalaluddin] Haqqani group, it's obvious that India-Pakistan peace talks are not what the world is waiting for. It's a side story needed to be dealt with to move on to the bigger picture that is unfolding in Afghanistan."

Haqqani's militant faction is considered pro-Inter Services Intelligence and if the Pakistani army brings them on the talks table, it will impact some 5,000 Taliban fighters. Haqqani's Taliban group is Pakistan's eyes and arms within Afghanistan, and the Haqqani factor helps Pakistan in keeping other fighters under the Taliban umbrella. India doesn't want to give any alibi to Pakistan to dilute its efforts in the Afghanistan endgame. So, when Pakistan would be cajoling Haqqani to join the proposed talks on the chessboard of US-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation plans, India and Pakistan peace talks would not remain in focus.

Meanwhile, the argument that Pakistan's security concerns vis-à-vis India should be addressed by the US to help Pakistan fight the Taliban doesn't go down well with many Pakistan experts in India.

The Haqqani faction, they argue, is too important for Pakistan and it can never sacrifice them. It is highly unlikely that they would bring them to the talks table.

"It is an illusion," said one expert, "created by Pakistan that they are ready to play an important role in bringing peace in Afghanistan."

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi