Pakistan, goodness knows, deserves some uplifting news, given its predicament. In one of its provinces, Baluchistan, a decades-long insurgency continues to rage. In Northwest Frontier Province, the Pakistani wing of the Taliban rules swaths of territory and goes unchallenged by the army, or bloodies the military's nose when challenged. Adjacent are the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, havens for Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and the most likely hiding place of Osama bin Laden.
The threat posed by Islamic militancy and terrorism leaves Pakistan's newly formed democratic government with only bad choices. To please the United States, it has to deal more aggressively with both threats -- and take bigger losses in the process. But if it starts getting tougher, it not only risks alienating the public, which dislikes Pakistan's role as America's adjutant in the war on terrorism, it could cause the violence to spread.
On top of all this, Pakistan's economy is a mess: Inflation is running at 25%, unemployment is at more than 8% and rising, foreign currency reserves are drying up, and the country could default on its debt.
So what's the good news? Oddly enough, it has to do with Pakistan's nemesis, India, and what is arguably the biggest problem separating them: Kashmir. This is the Muslim-majority territory over which they have fought two full-scale wars and had countless skirmishes.
Separating the Indian-administered segment of Kashmir from that run by Pakistan is the "line of control," established after the first Kashmir war ended in 1948. Despite a 2004 truce, Indian and Pakistani troops traded gunfire there as recently as July, and India routinely excoriates Pakistan for sending terrorist groups across it to wreak havoc in Kashmir and to aid separatists, whom India has fought since 1989 in a war that has claimed 60,000 lives.
Yet it is this dicey demarcation that now brings (some) good cheer. On Tuesday, trade began to flow across this cease-fire line in both directions for the first time. Trucks laden with merchandise headed in search of markets; some heady entrepreneurs in India and Pakistan dream that, if all goes well, this new pathway will provide access to larger markets beyond their two countries. Kashmiris cautiously hope that there will be additional steps -- bus service between the two parts of Kashmir was opened in 2005 -- that increase contact between their communities, which have been cruelly separated for 60 years.
This new development would not have been possible but for two important shifts. The first is that since 2002, under heavy U.S. pressure, Pakistan began to rein in terrorist groups that it had long trained and equipped to infiltrate the line of control. Initially skeptical, the Indians now recognize that there has been a real change.
In addition, Indian leaders have changed their thinking about Pakistan. They used to see Pakistan's misfortune as India's good fortune. In 1971, for example, Indians reveled in their victory over Pakistan in the war that brought Bangladesh into being and that truncated Pakistan.
To many Indians, the very existence of Pakistan -- an Islamic state created for South Asian Muslims -- was a challenge to India's secular polity. What was the need for Pakistan, this line of thought went, when millions of Muslims live in India?
Things are different now.
A failed state in a Pakistan armed with nuclear weapons and teeming with Islamic radicals and terrorist groups would make it far harder for India to maintain control of Kashmir (a task already made difficult because of the reputation for brutality that the Indian army has among Kashmiris). But there's an even bigger problem. If Pakistan unravels, chaos and violence will engulf India's western flank, from Kashmir across Pakistan and into Afghanistan. And any Indian attempt to reduce its intensity will strengthen it by producing a popular backlash.
Now, Pakistan's misfortune is India's misfortune.
What's happening along the line of control is but a thin silver lining in a menacing black cloud. Trade per se is no panacea for conflict, especially on so small a scale. The roots of the Kashmir conflict remain: Kashmiris seek self-determination; India and Pakistan each claim to be the rightful owners. But commerce that continues and expands can create mutual gains that widen benefits and build trust. And trust is what's needed for any advances -- however incremental -- on the Kashmir dispute.
That's why those trucks are so important.
Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a fellow at the New America Foundation.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times