Every impending deadline, coupled with the window of opportunity for talks in Kashmir, underscores the need for a new line of engagement between New Delhi and Islamabad.

As a slew of new track-2 and track-3 initiatives try to build a ‘roadmap’ for a new India-Pakistan dialogue, it may be time to look at some of the circumstances in which dialogue has been derailed in the past — and hunt clues for the future. In the parlance of India-Pakistan ties, specifically in the past decade, it is the top leadership that has proposed new initiatives for peace, and it is terrorists and those who direct them who have been most easily able to dispose of them.

On the night of the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008, just an hour before the attackers fired the first shot, the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministers were holding a press conference in New Delhi. The tension between the two countries at the time was over the Indian cricket team’s hesitation to go play a series in Pakistan after the Marriott hotel bombing in Islamabad. Coincidentally, India’s Home Secretary was in Islamabad, where the two countries had issued a comprehensive Joint Statement on fighting Terror and Drug Trafficking. India and Pakistan had agreed to ‘fast-track’ the 5th round of the Composite Dialogue. Hours later all dialogue was suspended, and history was written once again by the terrorist’s gun.

While the Mumbai attacks led to what’s become the most prolonged suspension of talks since the year 2000, it is part of a distinct pattern. In May 2006, negotiators were close to a breakthrough on demilitarising the Siachen glacier, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had hoped to make a “mountain of peace.” According to those who knew, talks with Pakistani officials had entered an advanced stage, due to be taken forward that summer. But first deadly attacks at the Congress party rally in Srinagar on the eve of the Prime Minister’s roundtable conference, and another brutal attack on tourists pushed Siachen talks to July, when the Foreign Secretaries were due to meet. In July 2006, just nine days before that meeting, the Mumbai train bombings left more than 200 dead and with them buried all talk of talks for months.

In 2007, revived talks made strides on the Wullar dispute. On Sir Creek they had all but agreed on a settlement, when the Samjhauta blasts took place. Again and again, the dialogue was buffeted in a series of blasts, in Hyderabad, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, and Delhi, where more than a hundred were killed.

In 2008, it was the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul and then the Mumbai attacks that finally halted all talks. Through these brutalities, the composite dialogue has lurched from event to event, sustaining itself on the oxygen of meetings on the sidelines of international summits — Havana, Colombo, New York, L’Aguilla, Yekaterinburg and Sharm El Sheikh — and always going into dialogue-ICU after the next big attack. Closer home, the attack on Fazl Haq Qureshi in Srinagar and the fidayeen hotel siege at Lal Chowk have followed reports of dialogue being initiated between the Central government and separatists.

The Mumbai attacks, however, cannot be clubbed with the rest because of the deep scar they left on our nation. Even Islamabad seemed to get the message from India’s pain and the international community’s outrage -- that there would be no going back after 26/11. In the months that followed, Pakistan took unparalleled action, beginning with the reluctant admission that the attackers were Pakistani, to the investigation it undertook on the basis of Indian dossiers. And then in October, the pressure on Pakistan seemed to double. The revelations from the Headley investigation and subsequent indictment by U.S. officials for the Mumbai attacks brought his handler, a former Pakistani army Major, into focus and with it fresh impetus for Islamabad to act. Within a month, Islamabad charged seven men with 26/11. While Indian statements have kept up a steady focus on Hafiz Saeed, they have failed to acknowledge that the men now awaiting trial at a Lahore court are far from ‘small fry.’ LeT operational commander Zaki Ur Rahman Lakhvi, for one, known as the ‘Imam of jihadis,’ Abu Al Qama (wanted for the Red Fort and Akshardham attacks), and computer expert Zarar Shah. If shutting down the LeT and the JuD and arresting Hafiz Saeed are impossible tasks for those in Islamabad who created them, these indictments could at least be considered a start.

But the gains from keeping the pressure on Pakistan have now hit the law of diminishing returns — and diminishing sympathy from the pro-peace constituency in Pakistan, which believes India should show more concern about the terror attacks that paralyse ordinary Pakistanis every day.

At least the first decade of the 21st century gave our leaders many opportunities to kickstart and restart the dialogue process. The next decade, however, is unlikely to afford that leeway for at least three distinct reasons. In fact, the next 18 months may be all the time for flexibility they have.

For one thing, the next 18 months are the only space the United Progressive Alliance government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have for any bold foreign policy initiatives. Uttar Pradesh and other key States will head for Legislative Assembly elections in 2012. If he so chooses, Dr. Singh will also be able to counter the sizeable strategic community opposed to talks with the lowered threat perception that has arisen amongst the larger national community after the past 13 months of relative freedom from major terror attacks. Already, several people-to-people, and media-to-media initiatives are starting without the public outcry they would have faced a year ago.

Another deadline is the one announced to the American people by President Barack Obama, to begin the pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by mid-2011. If this is met, it will certainly change the power structure in that embattled South Asian nation. As American troops thin out on the ground, India, with its consistent refusal to be part of peacekeeping forces, may find Pakistan, the U.S.’s ally in the ‘war on terror,’ gaining leverage and perhaps less willing to yield in talks.

Finally, the unspoken deadline that looms before Pakistan and is an equal threat to India is the time changes will occur within the Pakistan army structure. India has always seen the Pakistani army as its biggest enemy, one that has raised and pushed militants over the LoC. Paradoxically as a cohesive, centrally commanded force, it is also best placed to protect India from the jihadi terror that savages Pakistan’s cities today.

But many inside the Pakistani establishment point to a timeline 18 months hence: when some of the army recruits enlisted during General Zia-ul-Haq’s ‘Islamicisation’ drive in the mid-1980s (1984-1988) would reach Brigadier rank and above. In his widely acclaimed book, Crossed Swords, Shuja Nawaz, whose brother Gen. Asif Nawaz was Army Chief from 1991-1993, describes the former military dictator’s efforts: “Zia tried hard to change the ethos of the army, making Islamic ritual and teachings part of the army’s day to day activities, changing its motto to ‘ Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabeelilah’ (Faith, obedience, struggle in the path of Allah). The Jamaat-e-Islaami took advantage of the changing demographics and nature of the army by sending out directives to its members to sign up for the army by taking the Inter services selection board examinations.”

It is those army recruits who could soon reach the highest levels. The fear, of course, is that some will answer not to the military high command -- but to a ‘higher’ one. During the recent 18-hour siege of the GHQ in Rawalpindi, the generals were reportedly worried during the first few hours that the fidayeen attack had been engineered by ‘Talibanised’ elements of the army itself. The fears turned out to be unfounded. But the GHQ attack established a different pattern of worry for the country -- that of the South Punjabi Lashkar, trained in PoK, carrying out an attack for the Taliban in Waziristan, Pakistan’s triangle of terror, quite literally closing in on its central command structure, and putting both Pakistan, and India on notice. All those in India who today wonder, “Yes, talk — but who to talk to?’ may find the current lack of options nothing compared to what may follow.

All these impending deadlines, coupled with the window of opportunity for talks in Kashmir hasten the need for a new line of engagement between New Delhi and Islamabad, an engagement that understands that agencies that have unleashed terror attacks to derail the process in the past will shadow the next round too.

Finally, the question most often asked, ‘Why talk at all?’ may well find its answer in George Mallory’s response to the question, ‘Why climb Everest?’ ‘Because it’s there,’ the mountaineer replied. Why talk to Pakistan? Because it will always be there. And we still can.

(Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)

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