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Pakistan and India Talk Trade, But Historical Tensions Persist

After a lengthy break following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, India and Pakistan are sitting down for bilateral talks focusing on trade, Our correspondent reports from the Pakistani side of the Wagah border crossing between the two archrival nations.

Few things exemplify the relationship between India and Pakistan as vividly as this display.

Almost every single day since 1959 elite soldiers from both nations have squared off in a flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah border crossing - a performance unlike any other.

Under the watchful eye of the nation's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Pakistani soldiers, in black, equally challenge and warn their neighbor.

And that is the highlight of the day at this border crossing. Trade is down to a trickle - a handful of trucks. Some estimates say if relations between the two countries improved, cross-border commerce could jump tenfold from its current level of around $2 billion a year - a major boost to both sides.

Now, for the first time in nearly 30 months - since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks - substantive talks between India and Pakistan are being held in Islamabad, focusing initially on improving trade.

For Professor Hassan Askari of Punjab University, the results could be significant, allowing both sides to re-allocate resources better used elsewhere.

"I think that if these talks don’t produce results, both sides lose," said Professor Askari. "A lot of their resources are used against each other - doing propaganda, strengthening their security forces - and a normal relation doesn’t take place."

But there is a lot of history to overcome. The two nations have fought three wars and several skirmishes since their creation following the British withdrawal in 1947.

The core dispute between the two is the status of Kashmir - a predominantly Muslim region split at partition between Pakistani-controlled and Indian-controlled areas, and a source of dispute ever since.

But as Pakistani member of parliament Abida Hussain puts it, this is about far more than territory or religion. Many of the important waterways in the region originate or run through Kashmir, making it strategically vital.

"Kashmir is not about territory, Kashmir is about water! And further down the road, what we anticipate and apprehensiveness is that our great Indian neighbor could say ‘we are your friends’ and while saying that, deny us water," said Abida Hussain.

Further complicating the situation is that, since the 1990s, both countries have developed and tested nuclear weapons.

And critics say Pakistan in particular, which has fostered separatist movements to fight in Indian-controlled Kashmir, can no longer control some of the extremists it trained for its own ends.

With Pakistan’s eyes still on its traditional enemy to the east, it is paying less attention to the lawless area in the west of the country and lacks the resources needed to combat the extremists operating there.

"If relations improve with India, then Pakistan can spend most its security attention to the tribal and Pakistan/Afghanistan border," said Professor Askari. "At the moment, Pakistani attention is divided [between the border with India and the border with Afghanistan]."

In addition, many critics say there are elements in the Pakistani establishment who continue to support the extremists, both to prepare for a potential conflict with India and to be a spoiler in Afghanistan. India has conducted a number of economic missions to Afghanistan and Pakistan fears a pro-Indian regime in Kabul could box Pakistan in on both fronts.

Pakistan continues to devote most of its attention to India, in order to keep its traditional enemy in check and make it aware of the potential for a deadly, possibly nuclear, confrontation.

All of this means that despite the hopes being pinned on these talks, this border remains what many call one of the world’s most dangerous fault lines.