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Thursday, May 31, 2001

Courage in South Asia

This week marks the third anniversary of Pakistan's nuclear tests. Those blasts followed India's own tests by a few days. Although both governments denied that the explosions posed a threat to regional peace and stability, the tit-for-tat exchanges marked a dangerous escalation in the situation in South Asia. To their credit, both governments have restrained the impulse to make nuclear threats despite powerful temptations to do so. But there has been little movement toward dialogue during the same period. That changed last weekend with the Indian government's invitation to Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to come to Delhi for talks.

The timing of the invitation was ironic on two counts. Not only did it come on the anniversary of the nuclear tests, but it also followed the termination of India's six-month-old unilateral ceasefire against Kashmir rebels who demand separation from India. Only hours after the ceasefire ended, six guerrillas were killed by Indian security forces.

The end of the ceasefire is regrettable; violence has only inflamed the situation in Kashmir. But talks with the separatists, which the ceasefire was supposed to facilitate, have gone nowhere. That is because Pakistan, which supports those groups -- a charge it denies -- did not want India to be able to avoid dealing with Islamabad.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is to be applauded for his realism. His reversal was difficult. Two years ago, Mr. Vajpayee made a historic bus trip to Lahore to meet Pakistan's then prime minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif. That was lauded as a breakthrough on the subcontinent. Whatever progress was made quickly evaporated; months later, guerrillas supported by Pakistan seized Indian territory in Kargil, in an operation that was being planned at the same time as the Lahore meeting. Although the invaders were run out of the area, the damage was done. Gen. Musharraf, then head of Pakistan's military, was fingered as the mastermind behind the land grab.

There are several explanations for Mr. Vajpayee's shift. The first, and most important, was the lack of progress since cutting off contacts with Pakistan. Then there are signs of warming relations with the United States, a traditional ally of Pakistan, which could strengthen Delhi's hand. The poor showing of the government parties in state elections earlier this month also gave Mr. Vajpayee incentive to make a bold move. Finally, Pakistan's continuing economic weakness gives Mr. Musharraf an incentive to respond positively to the invitation.

Which he did. Mr. Musharraf called the move an act of great courage and hinted that he would be flexible about the agenda. That is a victory for Mr. Vajpayee: Pakistan's leaders have said that the Kashmir dispute would have to be settled before talks could move to other issues. Mr. Musharraf will focus on Kashmir, but the legitimacy conferred as a result of a meeting with his Indian counterpart is an incentive to be flexible.

The new course is not without risks to Mr. Vajpayee. His policy shifts, as outlined by Mr. Brahma Chellaney in his article, make him look inconsistent and lacking vision. India's nationalists are always suspicious of any attempt to negotiate over Kashmir. But the dispute will never be solved without dialogue; a military solution is not possible. And if any Pakistani leader is capable of cutting a deal on Kashmir -- and delivering -- it is Mr. Musharraf.

Will he? He has good reasons to do so. Mr. Musharraf has made it clear that he intends to run for president when he allows elections to be held and progress on this issue would help solidify his claim to power. It would also diminish international criticism of his regime. Easing tension would also aid Pakistan's beleaguered economy. Fears of war have scared off foreign investors: Pakistan had only $143 million in foreign direct investment in the last six months of 2000, less than half the amount from the previous year. The government continues to devote extraordinary resources to the military, depriving the country of long-term investment in education and infrastructure that is needed for growth. Pakistan's economy needs to expand by about 6 percent to outpace its rising population; it is only growing 4 percent, however. As a result, the number of citizens below the poverty line has almost doubled, rising from 18 percent to 34 percent, since 1987.

Mr. Musharraf must cope with nationalists who refuse any accommodation with India. Pakistan's other prime ministers have claimed that group constrains their ability to compromise on Kashmir. As a military leader, Mr. Musharraf should have more clout with nationalists. The question is whether he will use it. Mr. Musharraf should reciprocate Mr. Vajpayee's courage and take up the challenge of making a real peace.

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