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INDIA/PAKISTAN: Signs of a Thaw

NEW DELHI, Feb 19 2009 (IPS) - A week after Islamabad admitted that the plot to carry out the Nov. 26-29 attacks on Mumbai was partially planned in Pakistan, and that Pakistani nationals were among the assailants, there are tentative signs that the strained relations between the two neighbours may be thawing.

At least five such signs are now discernible.

First, and most important, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Thursday ruled out a military option against Pakistan and emphasised that New Delhi would only use diplomatic means to get Islamabad to act against the terrorist network involved in the attacks.

Mukherjee strongly defended India’s diplomatic approach towards Pakistan even as he emphasised that India would continue to demand that Pakistan dismantle “the terrorist infrastructure” in the country “in a verifiable and credible manner”.

He said: “Diplomacy has not failed. Diplomacy has prevailed. They (Pakistan) had admitted the involvement of elements from their country behind the terror attacks… We did not mobilise a single soldier, we did not press the panic button, we did not lay mines on the border, but we said we expected Pakistan to fulfil its commitment. They informed us in February admitting the involvement of elements in their country.”

Islamabad’s admission came five weeks after India handed over a detailed dossier on Mumbai to the Pakistan government, containing evidence of the involvement of Lashkar-e-Toiba militants in the Mumbai assault.

Mukherjee was careful to add India ”doesn’t mean to rub [Pakistan] on the wrong side. We know the complexity of our neighbour. Everyone knows that [the] Pakistan situation is complex”.

This is the clearest statement so far from an Indian high official indicating that New Delhi does not intend to use coercive means to secure Pakistan’s cooperation in preventing and punishing terrorist activities carried out from its soil.

“This is undoubtedly a marked departure from the recent rhetoric employed by India accusing Pakistan of denial, evasion and prevarication,” says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor in the School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Second, according to Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, “India has expressed a wish that a team from the FIA [Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency] should visit India. We are considering this request.”

India has not officially confirmed this. But if this is true, then New Delhi may be more willing than in the past to accept Pakistan’s offer of a “joint investigation” into the Mumbai attacks, or at least, to explore a cooperative approach.

Third, India has made it clear that it does not intend to suspend communication links and people-to-people contacts with Pakistan.

Last week, Mukherjee said: “I must underline that we have no quarrel with the people of Pakistan. We wish them well and we do not think that they should be held responsible or face the consequences of this situation. We have, therefore, consciously, and after due deliberation, not thought it necessary or fit to curtail people to people contacts, trains and road links.”

Fourth, New Delhi has dispelled fears that it would not appoint a new high commissioner (ambassador) to Pakistan as soon as the term of the present incumbent expires at the end of this month.

Earlier, there were reports that India would delay the appointment of his successor until a new government is in power in New Delhi in May after the coming general election partly as a way of temporarily downgrading diplomatic relations with Islamabad in response to Mumbai.

And finally, India is likely to respond in a cooperative and professional fashion to questions about the Mumbai attacks raised by Pakistan. A week ago, Islamabad had highlighted 30 issues on which it wanted further information and clarifications from India.

“All this suggests a measured, friendly and mature response to Pakistan’s change of stance,” argues Mitra Chenoy.

He adds: “It is a sign of sobriety that India resisted calls for retaliation against Pakistan, and that Mukherjee said that ‘human liberty and values are sacrosanct. We cannot imitate certain other countries and their actions’ which are causing the loss of innocent lives every day. Mukherjee was implicitly referring to the United States’ global ‘war on terror’.

Ironically, however, the U.S. is reported to have played an important role in facilitating intelligence exchanges between India and Pakistan, which led to Pakistan’s admission of the involvement of its nationals in the Mumbai attacks.

The Washington Post reported on Feb. 16 that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a proactive role and “orchestrated back-channel intelligence exchanges between India and Pakistan, allowing [them] to quietly share highly sensitive evidence.”

“The intelligence,” says the Post, ”went well beyond public revelations and included sophisticated intercepts and an array of physical evidence. Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies separately shared their findings with the CIA, which relayed the details while also vetting the intelligence and filling in blanks.”

The Mumbai police had allowed the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to interrogate the sole surviving attacker, Amir Ajmal Kasab. The FBI reportedly shared the information it gathered, with intercepts of conversations between the attackers and their minders, with the Pakistani authorities.

In their briefings, Mumbai police officials have said FBI personnel might be requested to appear as prosecution witnesses against Kasab.

The FBI is known to have contributed to the writing of the Mumbai dossier and probably played a major role in persuading Pakistani investigators to accept its authenticity.

Perhaps even more important was the recent visit to South Asia of U.S. President Barrack Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke.

“Holbrooke is a hard-driving diplomat, who used unconventional means, including bluster, bullying and deception, to reach the Dayton agreement which ended the Balkan war in 1995,” says Karamat Ali, a Pakistani political analyst and social activist.

“It is inconceivable that he did not press the Pakistani leadership to admit that the Mumbai attacks originated on Pakistan’s soil, and to promise to act against the culprits,” Ali said.

“This does not argue that India’s bilateral diplomacy and Pakistan’s domestic politics did not play a major role in pushing Islamabad,” Ali added. ‘’They obviously did. But U.S. pressure was probably an important factor in enabling the civilian leadership of Pakistan to mount pressure on the military and break its resistance to responding positively to India.”

Despite the new signs of a possible thaw, not all is hunky dory between India and Pakistan. New Delhi still expects decisive action not only against the six men that the Pakistan government has arrested, and also against the larger terrorist networks of which they are part.

It is not clear if Islamabad will move quickly to dismantle what India calls “the terrorist infrastructure” in Pakistan.

India has expressed serious concern at the just-concluded agreement in Swat between the government of the North West Frontier Province and Islamic militants who have overrun the area, attacked and shut down girls’ schools, and are bent on implementing the Shariah code.

New Delhi believes this will encourage jehadi extremists connected with the Taliban, and poses a serious danger to the entire region.

Whether and to what extent that complicates India-Pakistan relations remains unclear. But if both governments continue to reciprocate positive and friendly gestures, a fruitful dialogue on how to contain and combat terrorism might become possible.

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