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04 December 2023

Indian offer of limited talks dismays Pakistan

India's offer of a limited dialogue with Pakistan on terrorism has dismayed Islamabad, where officials and analysts believe only full-blown peace talks can foster regional stability.

New Delhi's call for talks between the top foreign ministry civil servants in the two countries was welcomed last week as indicative of a major breakthrough in relations frozen since the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

But India and Pakistan have yet to announce a date for their first direct talks in 15 months, still haggling over the framework of the dialogue.

The tension between the nuclear rivals, which have fought three wars since British partition of the sub-continent in 1947, has fanned instability on their border and in Afghanistan.

India's overture was interpreted as a result of pressure from the United States, keen to keep South Asia trouble free while throwing tens of thousands more troops into battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Defeating Al-Qaeda and beating back the Taliban is a US priority, considered impossible without engagement from Pakistan, accused in the West of still supporting Taliban and other Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

Regional security is likely to be a focus of talks between US national security adviser James Jones and Pakistani officials this week in Islamabad.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi chaired a meeting of Pakistani officials that stressed Pakistan's commitment "to enter into a meaningful and result-oriented Composite Dialogue process with India in the interest of peace, development and stability in South Asia," his ministry said.

But a Pakistani government official told AFP there was disappointment with India's more limited scope for the talks.

"India says terrorism is their main concern and that the talks should focus on this issue," he told AFP on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

India and Pakistan started peace talks, or Composite Dialogue, on eight main topics, in 2004 that significantly helped to ease tension -- notably over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, the focus of two wars.

India broke off the dialogue after blaming the Mumbai carnage on Lashkar-e-Taiba and "official" agencies, agreeing on a return to talks only if  Pakistan were to bring the perpetrators to justice and dismantle militant groups.

An Indian government source said that while Pakistan had taken the "few small steps" needed for talks to resume, it had not gone far enough to merit a return to a full dialogue.

"We have said the talks would include all relevant issues from our side and issues that will contribute to creating an atmosphere of peace and stability between the two countries," said the Indian government source.

"Maybe these talks would lead to the resumption of the Composite Dialogue. Let us not prejudge the issue," the source added.

Analysts believe foreign secretary talks will eventually get off the ground as neither side wants the blame for sabotaging the process and hampering international efforts in Afghanistan.

India is now a massive investor in Afghanistan, fanning Pakistani fears over what the military traditionally regards its own playground to offset India's emerging superpower status by forging ties with the Taliban and other groups.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates' recent visit to India, where he warned that an Al-Qaeda "syndicate" could trigger a fourth Indo-Pakistan war, was a major factor in the New Delhi talks offer, Pakistani analysts believe.

"India was clearly told that if this relationship is not established, Taliban would become a major player in Afghanistan and keep receiving support from Pakistan," Pakistani security analyst Talat Masood told AFP.

Pakistani officials have sought to deflect some US pressure to do more in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban, by claiming that the perceived threat from India limits its military capacity to fight militants.

But Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari cautioned that dialogue only about terrorism would be "a non-starter".

"There will be no result if India talks about terrorism and Pakistan talks about its concerns in Afghanistan. There has to be composite dialogue and terrorism is one of the eight issues," said Askari.