TOPICS > Politics

Talking Peace

January 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Today’s announcement of talks between the two nuclear rivals followed a meeting in Islamabad yesterday between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The two men hadn’t met for two-and-a-half years. India’s national security adviser sounded upbeat today about the decision to begin formal talks next month.

BAJESH MISRA: It is a victory for peace and prosperity for the people of India and Pakistan and South Asia. In my view, it’s a win-win situation for all of us.

MARGARET WARNER: The two countries also issued a joint statement with the following bold prediction: “The resumption of dialogue will lead to peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides.”

Majority Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India both claim ownership of Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan region that’s 60 percent Muslim. The two countries have gone to war twice over Kashmir and seemed on the verge of war again two years ago, after the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. India blamed Kashmiri Muslim militants and froze relations with Islamabad, saying Pakistan was encouraging Islamic terrorists in Kashmir and India proper.

But recent months have brought signs of a thaw. In April, Vajpayee began a new, public effort to pursue peace with Pakistan. The two countries reopened communications and transportation links cut off in late 2001, including commercial flights between them.

In Kashmir, the two armies have been observing a cease-fire since November. Last month Musharraf dropped Pakistan’s long-standing demand for a referendum there. Today, he pledged to root out Muslim militants in the disputed region.

PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, Pakistan: Any extremism, any terrorism from here will not be allowed, as I said. We are the victims of sectarian and religious extremism here, which we are trying to curb.

MARGARET WARNER: Musharraf’s commitment to talks comes after narrowly escaping two assassination attempts last month. Investigators blamed Islamic militants opposed to Musharraf’s support for the U.S. war on terror, and opposed to Pakistani concessions on Kashmir.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on what’s behind this commitment to talks, we turn to two longtime India-Pakistan watchers: George Perkovich, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — he’s the author of “India’s Nuclear Bomb”; and Michael Krepon, a former Carter administration arms control official and founding president of the Henry Stimson Center. He travels frequently to both countries. Welcome to you both.

George Perkovich, as we know these two countries have a history of failed attempts at rapprochement. How serious did you take today’s announcement to be?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: I think it’s a very important development precisely because they seemed to have learned from their last past failures. In 1999 there was a very hopeful breakthrough followed by a war a couple of months later. Then two years ago they met and then that exploded. They’ve learned from that and did everything right this time in managing this diplomacy.

MARGARET WARNER: But these two men have both been in power roughly five years — Vajpayee a little longer. The relations have really been in the deep freeze for two-and-a-half years, Michael Krepon. Why are they interested in doing this now? Why are these two men interested in this?

MICHAEL KREPON: I think there’s been a suitably long breathing space since the last war scare, and you just can’t jump into talks. I think both of these guys would like to change their relationship, but the timing hasn’t been right. There was a regional summit meeting which was a perfect forum for them to get together. They had company, but they could get off by the side and do serious business which apparently they’ve done.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree though that they both want this but why do they both want this?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: Well, I think for Prime Minister Vajpayee, who really initiated this latest round with the speech that you referred to in your set-up piece, last April, it’s personal. He’s sort of a visionary. He’s a poet. He’s 79 years old. You talk to his closest advisors — he wants to go down in history as a peacemaker.

MARGARET WARNER: This is his last term.

GEORGE PERKOVICH: Time is running out. So it came from him personally. Then Musharraf to his great credit responded immediately with positive gestures as well because I think he sees himself as a man of peace now.

MARGARET WARNER: How much of a factor are economic issues? Let’s take India first. I mean, they’ve had incredible economic growth. They’re outstripping Pakistan by miles. Is it in their economic self-interest to have a better relationship to remove this sort of Kashmir thorn?

MICHAEL KREPON: I think for India, they don’t need Pakistan as a huge trading partner in order to get another 1 percent growth rate, but the trade now — direct trade — is minuscule. It’s like $250 million between one-fifth of the world’s population.

MARGARET WARNER: You don’t think that the potential for conflict is in any way a drag on India’s economic growth?

MICHAEL KREPON: I think for India it’s not primarily about economics. It’s about creating space so that India can grow in all dimensions — political, diplomatic, as well as economic. For Pakistan, I think it’s a different story. Pakistan sees itself as a transmission belt between Central Asia and the subcontinent. These are places that Pakistan should have by all rights should have normal, healthy trading relations with. It does not in either grouping.

And so when you talk to military leaders in Pakistan, they say we have two pillars in this country. One, not surprisingly, are us. But the other one is economics. We have to have economics settled and solid and we need growth in this country. So I think the dilemma for Pakistan is if we maintain our Kashmir policy….

MARGARET WARNER: “We” you’re talking about Pakistan.

MICHAEL KREPON: Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has depended a lot on keeping the pressure on India, but if we maintain that, we are going to jeopardize our relations to Central Asia and to India so I think economics is a lot more important for Pakistan than it is for India.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: Yeah, I mean I think for India it’s partly economics. I agree with Michael. But it’s also India wants to be recognized as a great power on the world stage. And if it’s always seen as this country that has a problem with Pakistan, it can’t be seen as great in its own right.

And so I think their motivation is really to put Pakistan behind them and basically say, I’m going to settle with you so I can get on to be great. You’re left to your own devices. Take care of yourself. We’re moving on to better things. I think that was their motivation.

MARGARET WARNER: There was something else, as I read today, that the two failed assassination — failed, but close assassination attempts on Musharraf also may have had an impact in making these two men realize they need to deal with each other. Do you see that?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: Well, yes and no. One of the things that I suggested earlier about having learned from their past mistakes was they pre-planned this summit meeting. That was something they hadn’t done adequately in the past. So I think a lot of this was already in motion before the assassination attempts. Certainly the assassination attempts have clarified Musharraf’s thinking about he’s got a problem with these Jihadi groups.

MARGARET WARNER: But they aren’t just Jihadis that are attacking India. He has a problem at home.

GEORGE PERKOVICH: Now they’re attacking him. Exactly. Also it probably has clarified for India that this guy may not be able to control these bad guys as fully as we’ve demanded him to and he can also use that as leverage with India. So I think it’s kind of given impetus to the diplomacy.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to ask you both about another point of pressure on Musharraf that’s been in the news lately and that is on your expertise, the nuclear proliferation front. The New York Times has been reporting and others have long suspected that Libya’s nuclear program depended to a great degree on transfer of technology from Pakistan. Pakistan denied that today. U.S. officials have been saying they don’t think Musharraf knew anything about that. Where do you think the truth lies?

MICHAEL KREPON: Well, the truth will come out because there is the process of discovery about to happen in Libya. There is a process of discovery now underway in Iran, another country where there have been public reports of Pakistani support. And if U.S. diplomacy gets in gear with respect to North Korea, we could have a process of discovery in North Korea as well.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your thinking though on this particular question of Musharraf’s involvement?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: I think there are many of these things that somebody at his level wouldn’t have known about, but it’s almost beside the point. The point is it’s outrageous and a threat to international peace and security that this happened. It’s a country that he’s responsible for. He has to make it stop.

So whether he knew about it, you know, in every detail, we can debate that. There should be discovery. But he has to exert all power in Pakistan to stop it and to our knowledge he hasn’t done that yet.

MARGARET WARNER: Both men have hard-liners in their own country opposed to rapprochement, opposed to particularly any concessions on Kashmir. Do you think they have the commitment and the strength to really persevere with these talks? Let’s say in the face of another terrorist attack, for instance, Michael Krepon.

MICHAEL KREPON: As different as both of these leaders are, they share their common trait of being risk-takers. And we will know the answer to your question, Margaret, pretty soon, I’d say within three or four months of the resumption of dialogue.

There are several indicators that we can look for to see whether this time it’s more than just tactics. This time it’s real serious. Number one, who do they choose to represent them? Are they going to let the foreign ministries do it? Number two, or are they going to let personal representatives do it? Number two, will there be a relaxation of linkage? Will trade be held hostage? Will nuclear risk reduction be held hostage to Kashmir? We’ll know very soon whether it’s different this time.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your assessment?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: I think Vajpayee has the power. They just won state elections. He can see this through. Musharraf is more of a wild card. As long as the army is with him — and he’s the leader of the army — he could see it through if he wants to.

MARGARET WARNER: George Perkovich, Michael Krepon, thank you both.