February 7, 2005 2:03 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What were the results of the just-concluded talks between India and Pakistan?

Representatives of the two longtime adversaries, at meetings February 16-18, agreed to a timetable for a series of high-level meetings over the next several months. "We do have a basic road map for a Pakistan-India peace process to which we have both agreed," Riaz Khokhar, a senior Pakistani foreign ministry official, said February 18.

What are the major issues?

The greatest point of contention is Kashmir, the mountainous region between the two nations that is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in its entirety by both. It has been disputed since India was partitioned by Britain in 1947 and was the cause of two of the three Indian-Pakistani wars. The ongoing dispute over the region brought the two countries to the brink of another war in 2002. Other issues to be addressed include nuclear security, terrorism, drug trafficking, trade, and economic development.

When will the next series of meetings take place?

The foreign secretaries of the two nations will meet in May or June, after Indian parliamentary elections scheduled for April, according to a statement issued by both countries. Further high-level talks will follow in July and August.

What are the chances that the talks will produce a settlement?

Expert opinions differ. Some are wary because of the history of animosity. "There’s an enormous river of mistrust to be overcome," says Rajan Menon, the Monroe J. Rathbone professor of international relations at Lehigh University. The two nations have held talks before--most recently in Agra, India, in 2001--with little result. Other experts, however, say that this time around might be different. Frank Wisner, former U.S. ambassador to India, told a Council on Foreign Relations meeting February 19 that he saw excellent chances for success in these talks.

Why are the two sides now willing to talk?

Experts say there are many reasons for India and Pakistan to take steps toward peace. The primary one is that their two leaders are actively engaged in the process. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 79, started the recent momentum by extending a "hand of friendship" to Pakistan in a speech in April 2003. Vajpayee, leader of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) --which heads a strong governing coalition in India--is expected to win another term in April. Experts say he is considering his legacy and wants to leave behind a lasting peace. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf survived two assassination attempts in December; experts say the attacks shook Musharraf and convinced him that radical Islamists were, for the first time, a greater threat to Pakistan than India.

Why did the last effort fail?

The Agra summit collapsed after India insisted that Pakistan stop supporting terrorists in Kashmir, and Pakistan insisted that India include final-status discussions on Kashmir as part of any future talks.

Why is Kashmir the center of the dispute between the two countries?

India and Pakistan have each claimed the majority-Muslim province since partition. India is a majority Hindu nation and Pakistan is majority Muslim. Kashmir’s population is majority Muslim, but it had a Hindu ruling dynasty at the time of partition. Kashmir’s maharajah, Hari Singh, sided with India after partition, angering many of his subjects and sparking the first Indo-Pakistani war. When the war ended in 1949, India controlled some 45 percent of Kashmir; the border separating the two sides is called the Line of Control. Until Musharraf declared a unilateral ceasefire in November 2003, Indian and Pakistani forces routinely traded fire across the Line of Control.

Pakistan has long demanded a U.N. referendum for the people of Kashmir, in accordance with 1948 Security Council Resolution 47, to choose if they want to join India, join Pakistan, or become independent. India has resisted calls for such a vote, saying the Kashmir issue is a bilateral one to be worked out between India and Pakistan only. India has also long accused Pakistan of supporting Islamist terrorists in Kashmir, an issue on which experts say the Pakistani leader has recently changed his position. "Musharraf came into power thinking that the radical Islamists in Pakistan [and Kashmir] were essentially freedom fighters," Menon says. "And he’s learned that they’re a real threat to him."

What are the major obstacles to agreement?

There are many, experts say. Hardliners in both countries oppose any kind of settlement on Kashmir, which some experts say has become central to each country’s self-definition. India sees itself as a secular republic that can tolerate many ethnic groups; that would be confirmed if Kashmir, a majority Muslim state, stays part of India. Pakistan’s founding vision is as the homeland for South Asian Muslims. If Kashmir stayed in India, that vision would be threatened, experts say. In addition, pressure for a deal could lead to "political suicide" if the two leaders set a deadline for progress and fail to meet it, says Kathy Gannon, longtime Associated Press bureau chief in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

What other major issues will be discussed by the two countries over the coming months?

  • Nuclear security. Discussions will continue along the lines of a memo of understanding signed by both nations in 1999, in which each pledged to undertake measures to reduce risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.
  • Trade and economic links. The two countries will discuss access to each other’s markets, experts say, and practical moves to make quality-of-life improvements for Kashmiris.
  • People-to-people contacts. These include travel to visit or reunite families. New cross-border bus and train services would run from Pakistan’s Sindh province into India, experts say.
  • Water sharing. There are several river systems that start in one country and flow into the other; management of the water resources must be negotiated.
  • Siachen Glacier. Both nations have stationed soldiers in this remote Himalaya Mountain borderland, at great cost in lives and money, since 1984. Experts say talks would focus on how both countries could eventually withdraw troops from Siachen.

On all of these issues, experts say, there needs to be what Menon calls "constructive reciprocity": each concession by one side has to be reciprocated by the other in a timely fashion in order to build enough trust to keep the process from falling apart.

What is the role of the United States?

It should be supportive but unobtrusive, some experts say, practicing what Wisner calls "quiet engagement" while building strong relationships with both countries. The best thing the United States can do, these experts say, is to offer economic aid to both countries, but especially Pakistan, to show the people there that aligning with U.S. interests against fellow Muslims in al Qaeda and the Taliban will yield tangible benefits. But these experts stress that all this needs to be done discreetly. "The last thing Musharraf needs is to be seen as playing to a script written by the Pentagon," Menon says.

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