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Upcoming Indian-Pakistani Talks Set Stage for Further Negotiations

Indian and Pakistani officials are expected to meet next week for the first time since the two nations agreed to renew talks aimed at ending decades of hostility. The three-day meeting will set the agenda for future higher level discussions on disputes, including the region of Kashmir and the question of nuclear proliferation.

The upcoming meetings in Pakistan's capital Islamabad are talks about talks. Mid-ranking Indian foreign affairs officials are expected to meet their Pakistani counterparts to set the agenda and smooth the way for future discussions by more senior officials.

After years of antagonism between India and Pakistan, analysts say determining the agenda for discussions is not always easy. One sticking point is how to approach the problem of Kashmir - the disputed region that India and Pakistan both claim in its entirety.

Samina Ahmed is with the Islamabad office of the International Crisis Group.

"The Pakistanis want to put Kashmir on the agenda earlier in the talks, whereas India would want that particular issue dealt with way down the road," she said. "Now, that doesn't mean necessarily years, but it certainly means months."

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since each achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1947 - two of them over Kashmir. India controls roughly two thirds of the region, where it has been fighting an Islamic insurgency. New Delhi charges that Islamabad provides support to the militant groups that at times carry out cross-border attacks on Indian forces.

India cut ties with Pakistan after an attack by militants on its parliament in December 2001, in which it accused Islamabad of playing a role. Pakistan denies giving any support to militants.

The upcoming talks in Islamabad are the result of a surprise meeting between Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf who met privately last month on the sidelines of a regional economic summit. Leaders of seven nations signed the South Asia Free Trade Agreement, SAFTA, which outlines plans for increased regional economic cooperation.

India's Foreign Secretary Sheshank, who will participate in discussions in Islamabad, says trade has helped bring India and Pakistan back to the negotiating table.

"What has changed basically is that many other parts of the world have already moved into a rapid economic growth mode, and South Asia cannot remain cut off from that part," he said. "We have many resources in the region and we feel that as we move into SAFTA we would be able to develop very close economic relations within the region."

But analysts caution that a normalization of ties between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, may still be a long way off.

In recent weeks Pakistan has been rocked by a nuclear proliferation scandal. President Musharraf pardoned a top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who confessed to leaking nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. The scandal also raised suspicions that senior Pakistani officials, including the president, may have been involved in the spread of nuclear technology, charges the Musharraf government denies.

Some analysts say the scandal will continue to reverberate during discussions with India. Sukh Deo Muni, from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says it is now likely India will ask that "nuclear confidence building" measures be included in future talks between more senior officials.

"India would like to be assured that nuclear assets in Pakistan are in very, very safe hands," he said. "Because if they are loose, then the first country, which can be seriously affected is India, and no other country. Therefore the question of proliferation is a serious question."

There are reasons to be hopeful that the preparations for more formal discussions between India and Pakistan will go well. Analysts say that because of the nuclear scandal, President Musharraf may want to show the international community his leadership abilities by pushing ahead in talks with India. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Vajpayee recently called parliamentary elections six months early, in part, so his party could use the momentum towards peace with Pakistan the election campaign. For those reasons, it appears the talks in Islamabad could lead to more substantive peace negotiations in the future.