February 10, 2011

Article at Washington Post

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India, Pakistan agree to resume peace talks

NEW DELHI - India and Pakistan agreed Thursday to resume formal peace talks that were broken off after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which were blamed on Pakistan-based militants. The decision could ease tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals and was welcomed by the Obama administration.

The United States has urged the Indian government to resume the dialogue with Pakistan, in part because their rivalry undermines efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. There has been a string of meetings in the past year between officials from both sides, but Thursday's announcement of a dialogue "on all issues" marks a significant step forward, regional experts said.

It also represents something of a concession by India, which had been pressing Pakistan to bring to justice those responsible for the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, India's financial hub, when gunmen stormed luxury hotels and a Jewish center, killing 166 people.

Retired Indian Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta, who has convened informal talks involving retired military and foreign service officials, as well as opinion leaders, from both countries, said India had realized how hard it was for Pakistan to comply with that demand, given the reluctance of judges there to prosecute suspected militants and the reluctance of witnesses to come forward.

"The conditions India imposed in the aftermath of Mumbai were dictated by domestic political compulsions," Mehta said. "Now [that] more than two years have passed, we ourselves have realized the conditions have to be watered down, and that is precisely what we have done."

A further delay would only embolden anti-Indian extremists in Pakistan, he added, "where every day seems to be a new day of violence."

On Thursday, a suicide bomber in a school uniform, whom police and intelligence officials described as a teenager, killed at least 27 soldiers at a military training center in northwestern Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility for the attack.

The South Asian rivals' decision to resume talks was made at a meeting between their top diplomats in Bhutan, both governments said. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi will visit India by July to "review progress," the two sides said.

Although observers expect India to continue to press Pakistan to crack down on terrorist networks long harbored on its territory, Pakistani officials say they want the talks to address the disputed Kashmir region. Progress on all issues is likely to be slow, after decades of mutual suspicion and three wars between the neighbors since independence more than 60 years ago.

India, Mehta said, also wants the dialogue to help reduce the mistrust that has grown up in Pakistan over India's role in Afghanistan, a goal shared by President Obama. That mistrust is a major reason Pakistan has been unwilling to cut ties with the Taliban, which it sees it as a counterweight to Indian influence in its strategic "back yard," he said.

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political and military analyst in Lahore, said even modest progress in the peace talks could help Pakistan quell the rising influence of anti-India militant groups, who have argued that India is not amenable to dialogue.

"The criticism here is that this dialogue doesn't lead to any concrete results," he said. "Some kind of dialogue will give a little bit more space to the Pakistani government against these groups. They will not be able to play the Indian card."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the United States hopes the resumption of the peace talks will have "a productive outcome."

denyers@washpost.com brulliardk@washpost.com Brulliard reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.