Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed Wednesday during a sideline meeting at the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad to begin comprehensive bilateral dialogue focused on expanding trade and cooperation. Even more significant, Swaraj confirmed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would attend next year's South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation conference in Islamabad, marking the first time in more than a decade that an Indian prime minister has traveled to Pakistan. "The entire world has been waiting for India and Pakistan to change for a long time," Swaraj said.
The wait dates back to midnight, Aug. 15, 1947, when the British withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent ended with the partition of colonial India into the independent nations of India and Pakistan. As is well known, the partition forced some 15 million people — Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who found themselves on the wrong side of the new boundaries – to move, in what some called the largest forced migration in history. A million people died during the process.
Partition also left important issues unresolved, most important among these being the status of the state of Kashmir. The only Muslim majority state left in India, Kashmir ultimately elected to join India, leading in 1947 to the first of three Indo-Pakistani wars triggered by the state. The Pakistani military's abiding antagonism toward India arose after the traumatic loss of East Pakistan, today's Bangladesh, after the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Thus, when India tested a nuclear weapon in 1974, Pakistan felt compelled to develop a nuclear weapon of its own and successfully tested its first atomic bomb in 1998.
Such is the precarious backdrop to one of the longest running international rivalries in modern history. More recently, the two — by then both nuclear powers — came close to war in 2002, with one million combined troops massed on the border in response to the December 2001 attacks on India's Parliament building by Pakistani militants. Since then, tensions have waxed and waned, but no significant thawing of relations has occurred until now.
This troubled history highlights the groundbreaking potential of the newly announced talks in Islamabad. Even so, there have been good intentions on both sides of the India-Pakistan divide before, so what's different about this time? While the fundamental constraints on both nations haven't changed enough to warrant a full detente — both nations must focus on their respective ethnic rivalries and a lack of resources, among other problems — the latest outreach suggests a stabilization and perhaps even a reduction in hostilities between the two.
First, Pakistan has changed its posture on terrorism. Pakistan has been accused in the past of harboring and exploiting militants, including the Taliban, as a means of gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan — where India also seeks influence, much to Pakistan's chagrin – but more recently Sharif has launched a robust military campaign aimed at uprooting domestic militancy.
The tipping point occurred in December of last year, when a militant attack on an army school left 132 children dead. The public was enraged and Sharif launched retaliatory strikes in Pakistan's lawless border region with Afghanistan, the area where much of the militancy is based; Pakistan recently hanged four militants involved in the shooting. The incident seems to have convinced Pakistan of the danger of blowback in employing jihadists as a foreign policy tool. Moreover, Sharif appears to have recognized that if Pakistan is ever to exploit its potential as a regional energy transit hub, he will need to preserve a stable security atmosphere in the nation — and that requires coming to grips with extremist violence.
One reason India is reaching out to Pakistan is the politics of the possible.
Now, India and Pakistan both recognize the centrality of a stable Afghanistan as a prerequisite for permanently defeating extremism, which was the goal of the Heart of Asia gathering. Afghanistan, often known as "the graveyard of empires," is living up to its nickname. Washington has failed to vanquish the Taliban despite 14 years of war in Afghanistan — the longest conflict in American history. And now the Taliban has regrouped and will most likely be part of any power-sharing agreement reached. Pakistan and India recognize that if they don't cooperate, the clouds of war may hang over Afghanistan, giving rise to a new and more determined generation of militants, threatening both countries and hampering their rise as regional powers.
One reason India is reaching out to Pakistan is the politics of the possible. Modi wants to overshadow his domestic failures with successes in foreign policy, an area in which the prime minister has more authority to act unilaterally. Additionally, Modi sees the link between foreign and domestic policy: If India and Pakistan can strengthen their bond, then India can finally abandon the vexing task of trying to establish circuitous energy and trade routes with Central Asia and the Middle East that bypass Pakistan. Instead, it can establish routes directly through its western neighbor, a faster, cheaper, mutually beneficial proposition.
Of course, the greatest threat to these talks is the very threat that has inspired them: terrorism. Should another large-scale terrorist attack the likes of Mumbai take place in India, public opinion will rally against Pakistan and force Modi to adopt a harder line.
While deep-seated constraints will prevent India and Pakistan from ushering in a new era of genuine friendship, these talks may turn the page to a new, less volatile chapter in their history.