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Chances Considered Thin for Significant Change in India-Pakistan Relations - 2003-05-09

India and Pakistan are preparing to resume diplomatic and transportation links after a freeze of nearly one and one-half years. But chances of any significant change in the largely frosty relationship between the two nations are considered slim. The Indian and Pakistani leaders have to tread very carefully to avoid angering their own respective constituents.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee initiated the thaw last month with an offer of talks with arch rival Pakistan, a move U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage labeled "far-reaching." Pakistani Prime Minister Zafrullah Jamali reacted positively to the overture, and both sides agreed to resume diplomatic ties and reopen air and rail links.

Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, says Mr. Vajpayee wants to make one more effort to patch up the relationship before he leaves office next year. "Prime Minister Vajpayee really would like to leave a different relationship between India and Pakistan as a legacy behind him," she says. "And he must have concluded that it wasn't going to happen simply by waiting for things to change."

But analysts are cautioning not to expect a radically different Indo-Pakistani relationship, at least not immediately. Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the relationship is simply moving back to its usually frosty state. "I think this is just a turning away from an extremely chilly and frozen relationship back to a little normalcy. But it is certainly not a breakthrough, nothing that will lead to a sustained peace process, unless efforts are made by both sides to overcome the gap in their positions," he says. "It's more like a backing away from a heightened level of tension."

The Indo-Pakistani relationship has normally been one of mutual suspicion even in the best of times. An attack on the Indian Parliament in December, 2001 by suspected Islamic militants sent the relationship into deep freeze.

Above all, the divided territory of Kashmir remains the major obstacle to a durable peace. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, and have reportedly been on the brink of war several more times. Islamic militants have been waging an insurgency in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, in many instances with help of the Pakistani military.

Because it is a deeply emotional issue for both countries, neither country can appear to give ground on the issue. For its part, India insists the Kashmir matter was settled long ago and there is nothing to discuss. Pakistan says the issue remains unresolved.

Pakistan has repeatedly pledged to rein in the Islamic militants and their cross-border operations. U.S. officials say infiltration levels are down, but stop short of saying they have stopped.

Mr. Haqqani says Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf risks alienating his countrymen, including the powerful military from which Mr. Musharraf came, in cracking down on the Kashmiri militants. "Is it within the means of the Pakistani state and government to control all those Pakistanis who feel very strongly about Kashmir, and who have cross border links and want to support the resistance inside Kashmir? At the same time, will the Pakistani military give up the cause of Kashmir, as it has called it for many, many decades, which has given it the enormous power it wields inside Pakistan?"

Ms. Schaffer says that for any real progress to be made, Mr. Musharraf will have to show that he is getting something substantive in dealing with India. "But in order for this to happen, there really need to be two things. First of all, President Musharraf has to be willing to put his credibility on the line with the militants within Pakistan," she says. "And, both he and they need to see that he's getting something for it in terms of the change in relations with India."

But Mr. Vajpayee must also tread very carefully. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, espouses a Hindu nationalist ideology and he has already come under criticism from the opposition for his new opening to Pakistan.