Tomorrow, India and Pakistan, with encouragement from the United States, will resume high-level diplomatic talks for the first time since the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. While the interlocutors, India’s foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir, have a cordial relationship (they were their countries’ ambassadors to China at the same time), there’s little reason to believe that these talks will be some sort of watershed in Indo-Pakistani relations. In fact, they could possibly increase the chances of conflict between the perennial rivals.
First of all, it’s clear that Secretaries Rao and Bashir will be talking right past each other from the onset. India wants to focus on terrorism, especially in the wake of another bombing in Pune two weeks ago, which killed 15 people and has been traced to Pakistan-based terrorists. Pakistan, on the other hand, wants to focus on just about everything except terrorism—water issues, economic ties, and of course, Kashmir. It’s difficult to see how either side will budge from these hardened stances. Yet the Obama team—who doesn’t appear to have put too much thought into the possible outcomes of this process —just seems to be happy that the sides are talking, regardless of the repercussions. As one senior administration official has said, “the bar is pretty low.”
But here’s where ostensibly harmless dialogue could become tragic. What if, during or following the talks, there’s another attack in India on the scale of Mumbai or worse? Based on past experience, such as following the Indian Parliament shootings in 2001 and Mumbai in 2008, India would immediately cut off the talks and begin preparing for military retaliation. Having already pursued direct diplomatic engagement, there would be no further, non-military step for India to take. And while it was the United States that pushed India to restrain itself in 2001 and 2008, the Obama administration appears to have lost much of the leverage and goodwill that reached historic highs under the Bush administration. Does the Obama team really think that its massive aid packages to Pakistan and acquiescence to China are ignored in New Delhi?
It’s also unfortunate that the bombing in Pune has simply been dismissed as “spoiler violence” intended to derail the talks. The attack wasn’t a political statement by the terrorists opposing diplomacy. It was another reminder that terrorism emanating from Pakistan continues to threaten Indian security and regional stability. There seems to be little evidence right now that talks could fix this problem. There seems to be a lot more evidence that it could make it worse.