India and Pakistan are set to embark on another round of serious engagement when their foreign secretaries meet in Islamabad this month. It promises to be an intense session when Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir meet on June 23-24, and straws in the wind suggest that the talks will be unlike other recent secretary-level discussions held between the two countries. There’s even been speculation that the two sides are set to negotiate some concrete deliverables to bring about a new thaw and pave the way for foreign minister-level discussions.
Yet Pakistan has already struck a disharmonious note, claiming that the agenda will be limited to the Kashmir issue, peace and security and friendly exchanges, while the Indian side is insisting that all issues, including the terror issue, will be discussed. India is determined to get maximum mileage from evidence given over the Mumbai 2008 attacks during Tahawwur Hussain Rana’s trial in Chicago. But Pakistan is in no mood to play ball, and has said India is too fixated on the issue.
It looks like the two sides are indulging in a little posturing through their respective foreign offices, with liberal recourse to the age-old practice of talking to each other through the media before a big event. The end result, however, will be as it has always been: the two sides will discuss exactly what they want to discuss. This is especially likely as the foreign secretary-level talks are designed in a way that allows either side to bring any issue to the table.
Significantly, the talks are taking place against the backdrop of some positive changes on the part of Pakistan that have been noted by India and the international community, including the killing of notorious terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri, who was seen as a greater threat to India than al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the international diplomatic community has been amazed at indications of a sea change in the Pakistani military establishment’s terrorism policy and suggestions that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has resumed intelligence sharing with the United States. Indeed, there are rumours that Pakistan gave exact details over Kashmiri’s location that enabled the United States to take him out in a drone attack.
With this shift in mind, India will likely press the terrorism issue and seek the expeditious trial of all accused in the Mumbai terror attacks. These talks may very well determine the course of India-Pakistan engagement in the near term.