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INDIA/PAKISTAN: New Beginning Uncertain – Top Analysts

BRUSSELS, Feb 17 2009 (IPS) - Almost three months after the terrorist attacks on India’s commercial hub of Mumbai, which soured relations between India and Pakistan, the prospect for renewed cooperation between the nuclear-armed neighbours looks dim, two eminent analysts from the region conceded at a policy dialogue here.

“Relations between India and Pakistan are at a critical stage,” Dipankar Bannerjee, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, said Tuesday at the dialogue organised by the European Policy Centre and supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

“The target of the Mumbai attack was India, but also Pakistan,” Bannerjee, a retired major general in the Indian army, told the audience. “The immediate objective was to set off an Indian-Pakistan war. That purpose has been defeated.”

However, Bannerjee added that India and Pakistan will have to go a long way to rebuild the trust that is needed for the two South Asian neighbours to work together.

Last week brought a glimpse of hope. The highest official in the Pakistan interior ministry, Rehman Malik, admitted that the attacks on Mumbai were partly planned in Pakistan. He announced that suspects from the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba have been held and may be prosecuted.

“That is a courageous statement and a reversal from previous denials,” Bannerjee commented. “Now, Pakistan will have to complete the investigation, punish all the people that were involved in the attacks and dismantle all terrorist facilities in the country. Pakistan will need support from India and from the international community for that.”

However difficult normalisation between India and Pakistan may look, the climate in the South Asian region is propitious for a new beginning, Bannerjee thinks.

“Look at the results of the elections in Bangladesh. Now there is a secular party in power, whereas the Islamist parties are reduced to a few seats,” Bnnerjee said. ”Or take the elections in Kashmir: a lot of people went to vote, expressing their desire for change.”

According to Bannerjee, India and Pakistan need to continue their dialogue, improve trade relations and cross-border people movements and strengthen regional cooperation.

“We are at a critical stage in economic history, while the war in Afghanistan and in the border regions in Pakistan needs to be overcome as well. We will need enormous political will for that, and a major international effort is needed, but main job has to be done in India and Pakistan,” Bannerjee said

Talat Masood, an independent military and political analyst in Islamabad, sounded less optimistic. “The Mumbai attacks illustrated the fragility of India-Pakistan relations,‘’ he said, speaking after Bannerjee. “Our optimistic assessment before was wrong.”

Masood, a retired Pakistan army lieutenant general, fears that the rapprochement efforts of the last five years are likely to fall entirely apart given that even before the attacks on Mumbai, the dialogue between the two countries had deteriorated.

“In Pakistan, the transition from dictatorship to democracy meant a great distraction from the peace process. And India was too much preoccupied with its international agenda. It did not bother much anymore about regional problems. That was a great mistake,” he said.

For Masood, the biggest drawback in the composite dialogue was the lack of success in the territorial disputes around Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek. “If those problems had been handled, that would have transformed the relations.”

Masood sees as a setback the abandonment of plans for a gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan, due to pressure from the United States. “Both countries need the energy, and the pipeline would also have increased the mutual dependence between India and Pakistan.”

Masood appeared extremely unhappy with the Indian accusations that the Pakistan government or government agencies played a role in the attacks on Mumbai, the Indian announcement that all options were open – including military action – to deal with Pakistan, and Indian “attempts to isolate Pakistan”.

“That is poor strategy. Pakistan is facing its greatest challenge with radicalism. The country needs the support of the region and of the international community. If you try to isolate Pakistan, you play into the hands of the militants,” Masood said.

According to Masood, relations between India and Pakistan can only improve in a sustainable way if a solution to the Kashmir problem is found. “It all depends on the political will: if you want it, you can do it. The process has to be really started, it can lead to a solution. But is the will there? Currently, I cannot see it.”

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