Instability on the AfPak front — and not the lack of trust — has emerged as the binding constraint on India's ability to move bilateral talks on Kashmir forward.

As India and Pakistan move the latest phase of their engagement to the foreign minister level, a curious shift in national attitudes and priorities on the bilateral front is now evident.

Earlier, it was New Delhi that expressed its inability to resume a substantial dialogue on the ‘core' dispute of Kashmir unless the terrorism issue was addressed. On its part, Islamabad treated with suspicion any suggestion that talks could be held on secondary questions first while Kashmir was postponed to a later date. So it was that a feeble attempt India made last September to talk about only humanitarian issues at the Joint Secretary level pending the eventual resumption of “substantive dialogue” never got off the ground. Nine months later, the Indian side has come around to the view that the “complex negotiations” on Kashmir which took place in the back channel with Pakistan from 2004 to 2007 were leading to a favourable outcome and ought to be revived, even if total satisfaction on the terrorism front is not forthcoming. But it is the Pakistani side which today is in no position to pick up the threads of the Kashmir dialogue.

The official Indian perception of the reason why this is so is that the Pakistani military never fully backed the Musharraf formula of leaving the territorial status quo in Jammu and Kashmir intact while evolving ways of making the Line of Control irrelevant for the people of the state. In an essay for the Harvard International Review in 2009 written before he was named National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon said India had two worries about the back channel — whether future governments in Pakistan would respect any agreement which emerged and whether the “internally omnipotent Pakistan Army” was on board. “The first question was never put to the test and remains unanswered”, he said. “All too soon the second was answered in the negative”.

In an all the Track-II meetings I have taken part in with Pakistani analysts, politicians and ex-officials in recent months, it has become abundantly clear that virtually no section of the political, bureaucratic or military establishment is willing to buy in to the back channel. For the politicians, the problem with the emerging Kashmir formula lies with Musharraf's paternity, which they are reluctant to embrace; as for the bureaucrats, they resent the role played by an outsider like Tariq Aziz. Each of these aversions can be remedied quite easily but unless the reasons for the military's opposition are understood, any attempt to revive the back channel is bound to flounder.

As long as the Pakistani military feels it has better options in hand, it will not support the kind of back-channel dialogue which took place earlier. One can argue that the traditional Pakistani approach of supporting separatism, militancy and terrorism is hardly likely to succeed but the metric for success the army brass is looking at is not a favourable outcome in Kashmir. What is at stake are options that help to entrench the military as the most powerful and indispensable institution in the country in the years ahead, when the demands for genuine democracy and federalism become more insistent.

For the moment, the Pakistani military's attitude towards the back channel, Kashmir and India is strictly a function of the cards it believes it holds in the wider ‘AfPak' game. This is a game full of peril and promise, where the potential for strategic gains for it are evenly matched by the prospect of catastrophe. For decades, the establishment nurtured extremist groups which acted as force multipliers against democratic forces within as well as against India and Afghanistan. If Musharraf was willing to look at the possibility of reaching an agreement with India in Kashmir, this was mainly because internal political circumstances and the Bush administration's blunders in Iraq meant the military establishment was not under pressure to surrender positions on the domestic and Afghan fronts. Both of these equations began to change from 2007 onward. The lawyers' movement, the return of civilian rule and the American surge in Afghanistan have rendered the establishment's assets and interests vulnerable all round. Under the new circumstances, a settlement in Kashmir would jeopardise the ability of the army to project itself as the custodian of Pakistan against a perpetually hostile India.

Even if the establishment had no direct hand in the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, the ensuing tension was helpful because it gave the Pakistani army an alibi to resist American pressure to do more on the Afghan front. Though the Manmohan Singh government almost immediately indicated that it had no intention of taking military action, the absence of dialogue for more than a year allowed Islamabad to keep up the illusion that the primary threat confronting the country was India and not terrorism. Today, with Pakistan under pressure to open the North Waziristan battle front, New Delhi's willingness to resume sustained high-level dialogue is aimed as much at making bilateral gains and building trust as at creating a conducive regional atmosphere for military operations against the Taliban and other extremist groups.

The attempted bombing of Times Square in New York by a terrorist with links to Pakistan-based groups and the recent suicide attack on the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore also mean the domestic and international alignment of stars is the most propitious for such an undertaking. But India has a vital role to play in not giving the Pakistani military an excuse to sidestep this vital agenda. During his visit to Islamabad, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna should try to review the full-range of confidence-building measures India and Pakistan have agreed to in recent years and discuss ways of taking them forward. Back channel talks will have to wait but that does not mean India should resist the resumption of ‘front channel' talks on Kashmir if the requirement of domestic optics makes them necessary for Pakistan.