The bad news from Pakistan since the beginning of the year has seemed relentless: the assassinations of two senior officials by Islamist extremists. The nosedive in U.S.-Pakistan relations over the Raymond Davis affair. Escalating political violence in Karachi. Mounting economic hardships.
That's why the Pakistani excitement and sense of national unity generated by this week's historic Indian-Pakistani cricket match was so striking, even though Pakistan lost the match.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demonstrated leadership and vision when he seized on the moment and spontaneously invited Pakistan's leaders to the face-off. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's attendance, combined with Islamabad's forward movement on the Mumbai attack probe earlier this week, provides hope that both sides see merit in forging ahead with dialogue.
Following a 16-month hiatus caused by the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Indian-Pakistani bilateral dialogue officially resumed this week when the Indian and Pakistani Home Secretaries met in New Delhi and agreed to improve counterterrorism cooperation. Islamabad announced it will allow an Indian team to travel to Pakistan for investigations into the terrorist attack that killed 166 people.
The two sides also agreed to establish a hotline between their ministries -- an enormously relevant initiative, considering that a fake phone call in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks almost started a war between them. For its part, India will allow a Pakistani judicial panel to travel to New Delhi to study the trial of Ajmal Kasab, the lone Pakistani gunman who survived the Mumbai attacks and was apprehended by Indian authorities.
So how can Islamabad and New Delhi turn these positive moves into a sustainable dialogue that leads to lasting Indo-Pakistani rapprochement?
The first hurdle is to prevent media spin from hijacking the commitments made in this week's parlays. Talks have been derailed in the past by one side exploiting progress in a way that makes the other side look weak or otherwise embarrasses leaders who have gone out on a limb.
The second step is to ensure that both sides conduct their counterterrorism investigations in a transparent and methodical way with the sole aim of prosecuting the guilty, not using them as pawns to one-up the other side. Pakistan has dragged its feet in trying the seven Lashkar-e-Taiba members it arrested in connection with the Mumbai attacks more than two years ago. This has not only frustrated the Indian government, but also U.S. authorities, who have in custody one of the key Mumbai conspirators, American citizen David Headley, who has provided numerous leads in the case.
For its part, India must continue to share findings of investigations into the February 2007 Samjhauta train blasts that killed some 60 Pakistani nationals. Recent disclosures reveal Hindu extremists -- not Islamist extremists, as originally assumed -- carried out the attack. Indeed, an Indian Hindu extremist leader recently confessed to involvement in several terrorist attacks in India during 2007-2008, including at a mosque and a Muslim shrine.
Beyond terrorism, bilateral talks should include the gamut of issues that bedevil ties, including trade, Afghanistan, and the seemingly intractable issue of Kashmir. Pakistan in the past has held trade hostage to Indian movement on Kashmir, even though a more robust trade relationship would benefit Pakistan. Pakistan has yet to grant India most favored nation trade status (MFN) under the rules of the WTO, despite that India granted Pakistan MFN status several years ago. Opening trade with India would be an effective and quick way to strengthen Pakistan's economy and help it cope with financial shortfalls, which are being exacerbated as growth slows and internal economic exchange stagnates. A planned meeting between their commerce secretaries next month provides an opportunity to begin this process.
There are ways to move the ball forward on Kashmir, if both sides are willing to revisit ideas mooted during dialogue that occurred from 2004 to 2007 between PM Singh and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. They should expand trade, tourism, and civil society interaction between the citizens of Indian-administered and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. New Delhi also should pursue the recommendations of the team of Kashmir interlocutors it appointed following last year's unrest in the state. While the interlocutors have not yet released a formal set of proposals, they have discussed the need for dialogue involving Kashmiri separatists and civil society leaders, increased autonomy for the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and measures to address human rights concerns.
While there is no direct role for the U.S. in the Indo-Pakistani talks, the talks will receive strong support in Washington, especially since a rapprochement can help reduce conflict in Afghanistan. Pakistan overstates Indian influence in Afghanistan, but also overlooks New Delhi's legitimate security interests in ensuring the country does not return to Taliban rule.
Still, the bilateral dialogue must include an effort by both sides to be more transparent about their activities and goals in Afghanistan. For instance, dialogue could start with India providing details on its economic engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan spelling out its specific concerns about India's role there. Pakistani fears of overwhelming Indian influence in Afghanistan are genuine. But a dialogue on the issue could help break down these suspicions and even potentially illuminate areas where the two sides might actually share common interests. It is possible for New Delhi to engage Pakistani fears without validating them or allowing them to drive its policy in Afghanistan.
The strongest case for moving Indian-Pakistani dialogue forward is to improve prospects for Pakistan's future. Islamist extremists whose lifeblood is regional conflict are strengthening their grip in Pakistan. Taking steps that restore confidence and trust in Indian-Pakistani relations will help inoculate Islamabad from extremist forces that threaten to reverse economic and democratic progress and undermine the stability of the state.
Lisa Curtis is senior research fellow on South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Foreign Policy