India and Pakistan are preparing for their third round of peace talks in just over a year. The summit, scheduled for January 17 in New Delhi, is expected to focus on the most difficult of issues: the long-running dispute over Kashmir. Landmark cooperation between the nuclear-armed rivals over the past year has leaders on both sides hopeful as they contemplate the new talks.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasheem Aslam says her government is cautiously optimistic about this month's summit with India.
"Naturally we are dealing with some complex issues, and expectations may be that we would be able to move very quickly, and of course we would like to see that," she said.
The central issue is the region of Kashmir, divided for more than 50 years but still claimed in its entirety by both countries. Twice, India and Pakistan have gone to war over the disputed Himalayan region, and until a cease-fire was declared in 2003, their armies used to trade fire regularly across the heavily guarded "Line of Control," the de facto border between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled portions.
But in the past year, relations between the two rivals have improved as the cost of war has gone up. For India, which is promoting an oil pipeline that would run through Pakistan, the price is energy security. Pakistan, meanwhile, has focused on domestic politics, including an increasingly heated internal debate over Islamic fundamentalism.
As a result, cross-border relations are better now than they have been in decades, and the peace process is beginning to bear fruit.
Last February, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers met in Islamabad. After that meeting, they announced a bus service that would link Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir for the first time in 60 years.
India's foreign minister at the time, Natwar Singh, said the agreement symbolized the new spirit of cooperation between the historic rivals. "My visit has reinforced in me and my friends in Pakistan a determination to continue working, for expanding cooperation and understanding between our two countries, the people of both our countries clearly desire it," noted Mr. Singh.
The cross-Kashmir bus made its maiden voyage on April 7. A week later, Pakistan and India restarted what newspapers have dubbed "cricket diplomacy."
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf joined Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi for a cricket match between their national teams. Pakistan won the match, and the chances for peace also emerged a winner. Both sides said the peace process was now "irreversible."
In June, New Delhi made a new symbolic goodwill gesture. It allowed a group of separatist leaders from Indian Kashmir to cross the Line of Control for a series of meetings with Pakistani officials. This was the first time India had allowed local activists to participate in any way in cross-border negotiations.
In Islamabad, Kashmiri leader Abdul Ghani Bhat told reporters that peace talks between Pakistan and India must include representatives from Kashmir. "If the process is to be made purposeful, the inclusion of Kashmiris is essential," he said. "And if and when we're doing the talking, we will find a way out - maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, but we shall certainly find a way out."
In October Indian and Pakistani officials met again, this time to promote economic cooperation. But critics began to complain that the talks had yet to produce substantive results on major issues like Kashmir.
Pakistani political commentator Ayaz Amir said at the time that so-called confidence-building measures like the bus route and cricket matches were important, but they remained essentially symbolic. "There's more hype and more rhetoric to the latest phase of Indo-Pakistani relations than any real progress," said Mr. Amir.
He said it appeared neither side was ready to change the facts on the ground. Despite months of negotiations, thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers were still stationed, eyeball to eyeball, along the Line of Control. Indian Kashmir was still a hotbed of shootings and bombings by separatists.
But then nature took over where diplomacy had fallen short. On the morning of October 8, a massive earthquake hit Kashmir. More than 80,000 people were killed and at least three million others left homeless, nearly all on the Pakistani side.
Almost overnight, the political landscape was transformed. Pakistani soldiers guarding the Line of Control dropped their weapons to help treat the injured. Their Indian counterparts, sworn enemies a day earlier, radioed New Delhi for support, and offers of aid rushed in. India has since donated more than $25 million, along with material and logistical assistance, to the Pakistani relief effort.
President Musharraf says the two countries should seize the chance now to resolve the Kashmir dispute. "A permanent, final solution of Kashmir is more possible now because there is some kind of energy being generated there for mutual interaction…There is a hype on assisting each other, and all this should be utilized towards directing it towards a solution," noted Mr. Musharraf.
Some changes have already been made.
The long-time rivals have opened five crossings along the Line of Control. These new corridors are allowing more aid to reach the quake-affected areas and, in some cases, helping reunite families long separated on the two sides of the political divide. For many Kashmiris, the crossing points are the first tangible indication that the peace talks may produce solid gains beyond just symbolic gestures.
Challenges, of course, remain. India says Pakistan is still supporting Kashmiri militants, including several groups linked to a series of fatal bomb attacks in New Delhi. And neither side has backed off long-held positions. India wants the Line of Control replaced with a permanent border; Pakistan insists it will never accept the existing divide.
But for the first time in nearly 60 years, people on both sides of the dispute also agree: the odds are finally tilting toward peace.