Hope and Pakistan

January 06, 2004

TALK COMING OUT of Islamabad yesterday was of CBMs (confidence-building measures), not WMD, and in itself that's indisputably a very good thing for the nuclear powers of South Asia.

In the immediate aftermath of yesterday's 65-minute meeting in Pakistan's capital between its prime minister, Pervez Musharraf, and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, there was a notably restrained tone. Given the bitter pressures from Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists within the two enemies of the last 50 years, downplaying the meeting as a cautious step in what at best would be a long and uncertain peace process seems more than reasonable.

In other words, there are plenty of forces dedicated to disrupting rapprochement, and much can quickly go wrong, as it often has.

Still, the simple fact of the summit was a much-needed icebreaker in the two nations' chilly and at times very bloody relations of the last few years. It was set in motion by peace signals last spring from India; then a cease-fire in Kashmir, the source of two of their three wars; and most recently the reopening of some travel links.

A somewhat hopeful analysis might conclude that the two nations learned pragmatic lessons in diplomacy from their last summit in Agra, India, in July 2001 - a disastrous, Rashomon-like meeting at the conclusion of which Mr. Musharraf was literally dressing up for the signing of a joint communiquM-i, while the Indians were denying the existence of any such agreement.

In any case, having held yesterday's summit without friction, whether this peace initiative continues - perhaps next with trade talks but ultimately with discussions on resolving the Kashmiri standoff - seems to rest more with Pakistan than India.

The key question: Has the Pakistani military, the nation's most coherent institution and ultimate power, finally decided that the underdeveloped country's resources must be shifted from preparations for war to economic growth, even if it means inflaming Islamic fundamentalists?

Mr. Musharraf - for the time being the Pakistani army's man in power and the survivor of two assassination attempts by fundamentalists last month - hinted at that as he opened the seven-nation regional summit at which his sideline meeting with the Indian leader was of course the highlight. "There can be no development in the absence of peace," he said. "There can be no peace so long as political issues and disputes continue to fester."

U.S. interests here are far more complex than just heading off a South Asian nuclear conflagration. A rapidly modernizing Pakistan, one not primed for war with India, would be a stronger bulwark against its Islamic fundamentalists and those along its Afghan border. A peace-oriented Pakistan would better secure its nuclear technology, which likely has been peddled to Iran, Libya and North Korea. But for now, unfortunately, that vision of Pakistan still remains much more hope than reality.

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