For a meeting point

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

The United States does not see the Agra Summit as a failure; it wants India and Pakistan to continue in the dialogue route.

THE Bush administration's response to the Agra Summit was on expected lines. It would not have been difficult to fathom its reaction even if India and Pakistan had agreed on a joint statement or, perhaps, even an Agra Declaration. Prior to his Asia visit, Secretary of State General Colin Powell said: "I am pleased that the two leaders were able to find an opportunity to meet. I am sure we are all, including them, disappointed that the meeting didn't produce as much progress or didn't have the success we may have hoped, but nevertheless they did meet."

Powell also said: "We will do everything we can to lend our good offices to the improvement of relations between the two countries and the difficult outstanding issues, whether it's Kashmir or nuclear issues... you will see us deeply engaged in the region and trying to have balanced and strong relations with both countries."

The Bush administration had said even before the Agra meeting that the two countries should start talking. Its position was that if Kargil was a total folly on the part of Pakistan, the absence of any meaningful interaction between India and Pakistan in the following two years indicated a drift, which was not in the best interests of the region. If the discussions between senior officials of the two countries are anything to go by, it is clear that there was pressure on both sides to talk to each other. If Washington understood what New Delhi meant when it focussed on the issue of cross-border terrorism and said that the Kashmir issue could not be addressed in a vacuum, it also realised the need to create the right atmosphere to discuss substantive issues in a meaningful way.

From the very beginning the Bush administration has been saying that the process leading to the Agra Summit was a local one and that Washington had nothing to do with it in a formal sense. A State Department spokesman said: "This was not a U.S.-initiated process; this was a process between the parties. This is what we have always said: that there needs to be a dialogue in which they can address these issues. These are issues that have been dividing the two countries for over 50 years."

In the immediate aftermath of the Summit, the theme song of the Bush administration, be it the White House or the State Department, was that Washington will continue to "strongly support sustained high-level meetings". And the bottomline was that although New Delhi and Islamabad failed to produce a joint statement, the Summit could not be seen as a failure. Another point that was made was that the inability of the leaders to come to an agreement on a joint statement had to be seen in a proper perspective. The general refrain of senior officials in the State Department was: "The two sides were grappling with very difficult issues that have divided them for over 50 years."

The Bush administration has also expressed the hope that future meetings between India and Pakistan would be at very high levels - ideally at the level of the top political leadership, or at least at the level of Foreign Ministers. Many people in Washington think that it is difficult for bureaucrats to break out of their mind-sets and that only the political leaders have the latitude. The surmise was that any meeting of Foreign Secretaries would be a non-starter.

Washington expected neither a disaster nor a magnificent breakthrough at Agra, especially on the subject of Kashmir. In fact, one non-official assessment was that the Summit would have a better place in history if it only helped lower the political temperature so that the leaders of India and Pakistan could really address the main issues dividing them.

The official position in Washington, irrespective of which party is in control of the administration, is that the two countries will have to sort out the issues between themselves even if Islamabad is desperate to seek U.S. assistance. The Bush administration has reiterated this position, although a few eyebrows were raised at Powell's offer of the U.S.' good offices to improve relations between them and tackle difficult issues, including Kashmir.

The Republican administration would not say much for public consumption on the ideas it toys with in respect of South Asia. But clearly the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government cannot be under any illusion of getting "closer" to the U.S. while rejecting its ideas on the grounds that it would amount to third-party intervention. The Bush administration is sophisticated enough to talk to the two sides and at the same time make the point that it is not getting involved as some kind of a mediator in the issues per se.

The general perception in Washington is that both India and Pakistan have a lot to gain by continuing on the dialogue route. Many people cite West Asia as an example, where the peace process continued despite facing obstacles from the beginning. Further, it has shown that peace cannot be achieved in terms of an agenda or timeframe set by the U.S. The Bush administration has wasted no time in pointing to this case as relevant for other parts of the world, including South Asia.

It has been argued that by talking to Pakistan India can make a long-term gain, that is, getting out of the "Pakistan trap", which has limited its ability to play the role it has desired in the international system. But clearly there is more at stake for Pakistan, which has been on the wrong side of the U.S. for the past two years or more. For Islamabad, which has been clearly frustrated by Washington's unwillingness to see South Asian developments from its point of view, there was the need to show not just sincerity but a determination to shift from a single-point agenda to issues that fostered hostility towards India. In a nutshell, Pakistan's insistence on accepting Kashmir as the core issue brought it face to face with the issue of cross-border terrorism. That the Agra Summit did not come to grips with this problem has disappointed officials in Washington, although they have not said so openly.

Pakistan has a long way to go before mending fences with the U.S. even if the Bush administration has been careful in its formulations about that country. On the one hand, officials in Washington have been saying that there is no hyphenation in the way it goes about pursuing its relations with India and Pakistan; that is, bilateral relations are worked out on merits and will not be influenced by the U.S.' ties with a third country. On the other hand, Washington has been careful about how it characterises its relations with Pakistan although factors such as Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan do not stand in the way. For instance, Washington, while taking note of India's concerns on cross-border terrorism, has refused to see Pakistan as being the major source of the problem. When Christina Rocca, the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, visited the Foreign Press Centre in Washington recently, it was pointed out to her that Islamabad's refusal to discuss cross-border terrorism was a major sticking point at Agra. Her response was: "We see the entire issue of terrorism and counter-terrorism as an important one in South Asia. We continue to talk to both governments about it. We think it is in the interest of Pakistan to work with us as well, and they do."

Although the U.S. has warmed up to India and has been referring to the country as a global player in the international system, the Bush administration has no inclination to write off Islamabad. It is surmised in Washington that such a move will not be in the interest of the United States, India or South Asia as a whole. In fact, senior officials have said that it was time the U.S. developed a Pakistan policy that is "about" Pakistan, and not pegged to extraneous factors. Such factors - India's relations with the Soviet Union, the entry of Soviet forces into Afghanistan, and so on - were at play in the Cold War years.

What lies beyond Agra? The Bush administration has taken note that the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan will be meeting prior to the next meeting of Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of the United Nations meeting in New York. The big question now is: When will Vajpayee visit Pakistan? Washington is keen that the momentum should not be lost; that talking is always better than frigidity in bilateral relations.

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