Image: Indian flag burning
Rizwan Tabassum  /  AFP - Getty Images
Activists of Islami Jamiat Talaba, a student wing of a fundamentalist party, torch the Indian flag during a protest rally in Karachi on Tuesday.
updated 8/12/2008 6:07:40 PM ET 2008-08-12T22:07:40

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, India misses you.

It's a change of heart that reflects how low India-Pakistan relations have sunk in recent months — and the fears that they haven't yet hit bottom with Pakistan being blamed for blowing up India's embassy in Afghanistan and repeated shootings along the disputed frontier in Kashmir.

The violence is threatening to turn back the clock on the rivals' four-year peace process, and a growing number of Indians are saying it has forced them to face a hard truth about Pakistan: They'd rather deal with a powerful dictatorship than a weak democracy.

Musharraf, the former general who seized power in a 1999 coup, often found himself at odds with India.

'We don't know who to talk to'
But since a February election left Musharraf largely sidelined, "we've got more violence, and now we don't know who to talk to about it," said an Indian Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn't want to publicly criticize Pakistani officials.

In India's view, four years of peace talks with Pakistan were fruitful because Musharraf kept a tight leash on hawkish elements in its army and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which New Delhi accuses of orchestrating last month's embassy bombing, an attack that killed 58 people. Pakistan denies the allegations.

Now Musharraf is getting ready to battle political foes who are calling for his impeachment, and that "leaves a big vacuum," said India's national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan.

"We are deeply concerned because it leaves the radical extremist outfits free to do what they like, not merely on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border but clearly, our side of the border too," he told The Straits Times of Singapore in an interview published Tuesday.

That's probably overstating the situation inside Pakistan, where the army and ISI do report to civilian authorities. But there's nonetheless deep distrust throughout Pakistan for India.

Pakistan accuses India of trying to fomenting a separatist rebellion in the restive Baluchistan province. Islamabad is also deeply suspicious of New Delhi's budding friendship with Afghanistan, which Pakistan has long seen as a potential rear base in any potential war with India.

Billions into Afghanistan
Since the Taliban's ouster in 2001, India poured more than $1.1 billion into rebuilding Afghanistan. It put up the new Afghan Parliament building and has been laying a road that will give the landlocked country access to a port in neighboring Iran.

"It's not like there's suddenly going to be a war between the two countries," said Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani national security analyst and Fellow of Harvard University's Asia Center.

But "in the absence of greater trust, you will see a kind of pincer movement against Pakistan by Afghanistan and India, and Pakistan's establishment and state turning toward whatever tools it has at its disposal to defend itself," she said.

India's policymakers seem all too aware of this. Yet with no stomach for renewed conflict, they are left with few options apart from more talks — and yearning for the days when Musharraf was firmly in charge.

That's not to say Musharraf is a beloved figure in India. He fought in two wars against the country and, months before his coup, orchestrated an ill-fated Pakistani attempt to seize ground from India in Kashmir, the Himalayan region at the center of the India-Pakistan rivalry.

India, on Musharraf's watch, also was subjected to repeated terrorist bombings that have killed hundreds of people. Many here see a Pakistani hand in the attacks, despite vociferous denials from Islamabad.

Yet between 2004, when the nuclear-armed neighbors began the talks, and early 2008, when Musharraf was pushed aside by an elected government, "we made more progress in terms of peace than we have in the past 60 years," said retired Gen. Ashok Mehta, a strategic analyst in New Delhi.

Trade between rivals increased
Trade between the rivals jumped from just over $500 million in 2004 to more than $2 billion in 2007; the two sides now alert each other when they are testing missiles to avoid accidentally triggering a nuclear war; long-closed roads and rail lines between the countries have been reopened and families reunited.

Even a return to the kind of covert back-and-forth that the two countries engaged in for much of the past six decades could undermine India's booming economy and quash its ambitions to be a respected global power, as all-out war certainly would.

That leaves peace talks, and both sides reiterated their commitment to the peace process at a regional summit last weekend in neighboring Sri Lanka. But the tone of the talks has changed, and New Delhi sees little hope for progress.

"How can we get talks back on track if the prime minister, the other people we meet with can't control the military, the intelligence services?" said Indian foreign ministry official.

Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan were born in the bloody partition of the subcontinent at independence from Britain in 1947. They have fought three wars, held tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests and engaged in countless battles before peace talks got under way in 2004.

Tensions eased in late 2003
Tensions actually began to ease in late 2003 when Islamabad and New Delhi agreed to a cease-fire along the Line of Control, the disputed frontier in Kashmir. Before the truce, shootings and artillery duels were commonplace, and residents of some villages practically lived in underground bunkers.

Nowadays the shootings — there have been 19 this year — remain infrequent enough to be big news on both sides of the border.

But apart from dialing down the violence along the Line of Control, the talks have made little progress toward resolving the dispute over predominantly Muslim Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both.

Musharraf, in fact, made the boldest proposals for solving the problem, at one point suggesting the two sides give up their claims and allow the region to be self-governing.

But "India did not try to draw mileage on that and get an outline for a real agreement," said Mehta, the retired general.

"We missed the opportunity — and we won't get another right now."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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