Why India and Pakistan will continue to struggle for common ground

By Maria Kuusisto and Seema Desai 

Twenty months after the Mumbai terrorist attacks put Indian-Pakistani relations on ice, last week's much-anticipated meeting of the nuclear-armed neighbors' foreign ministers ended without a breakthrough. A contentious press conference held by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna underlined the reality that it will take more than time to heal the wounds inflicted by the attacks and their aftermath.

But beyond the outcome of any one meeting, there are four main obstacles to a stronger relationship. First, there's the ongoing risk of terrorism. Pakistan's foreign minister does not reflect the militant groups based inside his country that would like to launch more attacks on India. (And when he did speak during the press conference that followed last week's meeting, it was to condemn Indian accusations of Pakistani complicity in the Mumbai attacks.) With another attack in the Indian city of Pune in February, Indian security agencies also say they've foiled several planned strikes on high-profile government and commercial targets in large cities.

The terrorist risk will remain high for the foreseeable future, and another attack linked to Pakistan-based groups would trigger public pressure on India's government to respond with military force-with aerial attacks on suspected terrorist camps and infrastructure inside Pakistan, for example. Aware of the risk that escalation could spiral beyond either side's full control, Delhi would work hard to resist these pressures. But Indian leaders won't take military threats off the table for fear of emboldening militant organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that India blames for Mumbai.  

There's also a political dimension to the terrorism problem. Under Indian and American pressure, Pakistani security forces briefly detained Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed. In June, a Pakistani court released him. Indian officials continue to insist that progress in Indian-Pakistani relations depends on Pakistan's willingness to bring those responsible for Mumbai to justice. Pakistani officials counter that better relations should have no precondition. And since Pakistan's foreign and security policy is managed by the country's military, not its civilian government, there is little that Pakistani negotiators can credibly promise their Indian counterparts on this issue at this time.

Second, there is Kashmir. This perennial flashpoint, which has triggered three wars between India and Pakistan, is off the negotiating table for the moment. Things had been improving in the region. Local elections last year in Indian-controlled Kashmir featured high voter turnout and little sign of violence. But in recent weeks, clashes between security forces and demonstrators have killed 15 civilians in the provincial capital of Srinagar, and Indian officials have placed the blame squarely on Lashkar-e-Taiba. A military confrontation remains unlikely for the moment, but the unrest makes clear that Kashmiri violence is not a thing of the past.  

Third, there is Afghanistan. The Obama administration plans to begin a U.S. withdrawal from the country next year, leaving India and Pakistan at cross-purposes as each prepares for a post-American power vacuum. Pakistan wants an allied government in Kabul, and elements of the Pakistani military and security services are pushing for a power-sharing deal between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of an al Qaeda-linked militant network and Islamabad's traditional regional ally.

Delhi sees this Pakistani maneuvering as a direct threat to Indian national security, since it could allow the Taliban to resume support for terrorism in Kashmir and provide sanctuary for anti-Indian militants. India will look to boost its own influence in Afghanistan through anti-Taliban elements, including the Northern Alliance.

Finally, there is water. India plans to build several hydropower projects on rivers that cross the border to irrigate 80 percent of Pakistan's agricultural land and fuel 50 percent of Pakistan's hydropower capacity. Islamabad worries that India could use hydropower projects to trigger a flood or a drought -- and the economic crisis that either might provoke. This fear reached new heights in August 2008, when India withheld a considerable amount of water from the Chenab River and stored it in a local dam, worsening already serious problems for Pakistan's farming sector. Pakistan claims that India's projects violate a 1960 treaty that governs the use of water resources in the Indus River System. India says they do not.

Given the complexities of their shared history, it's little wonder that Qureshi and Krishna could agree last week on little more than the value of meeting again. That's why, if every journey begins with a single step, Indian and Pakistani diplomats should pack for a long trip.