Senior Indian and Pakistani officials pledged Thursday to improve frosty relations between their nations following a meeting between their prime ministers at the periphery of a regional summit in Bhutan.
Lowering the temperature between the wary nuclear neighbors has been a key goal of the United States in its broader bid to root out terrorism in South Asia.
As Washington sees it, the more troops Pakistan can shift from its border with India to the porous divide it shares with Afghanistan, the better are the odds of it routing Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents operating in its lawless tribal areas.
In separate news conferences after a one-hour meeting between Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani and Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, officials on both sides pledged to restore trust and open discussions on “all issues of mutual concern.”
Though India and Pakistan have been here many times before, only to see relations quickly deteriorate, the positive tone represents a break with months of squabbling and sniping.
As a next step, the nations’ foreign ministers are expected to meet, reportedly without preconditions, toward a stated goal of normalizing relations.
“There’s been a lot of soul-searching here,” Nirupama Rao, India’s foreign secretary , told reporters in Bhutan, which hosted the two-day South Asia summit that ended Thursday. “We need to take things forward. This is good for the two countries and good for the region.”
A few rooms away in Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi echoed her sentiments. “The atmosphere was extremely cordial and warm,” he said. “We are ready to engage with them tonight if they are ready.”
Each side got something, experts said. “It’s a bit of win-win,” said Indian political analyst Sushant Sareen. “They managed to push the dialogue process a bit.”
Future talks will be carried on in a less-comprehensive and structured format. India prefers a step-by-step approach rather than bunching all irritants together. It also wants to avoid committing too much political capital until it sees Pakistan acting forcefully against insurgent groups crossing from its territory into India.
In addition, holding the talks at the foreign minister level gives the Pakistani government more prestige and suggests that, with so much political will at stake, the sensitive linkage between Pakistan’s security agencies and militant groups may not be scrutinized too carefully. Pakistani intelligence agencies have long fostered Lashkar-e-Taiba and other such militant groups as proxies in the nation’s battle to wrest the bulk of the disputed region of Kashmir from Indian control.
The announcement also was made with an important mutual ally in mind, analysts said. “There is pressure coming from Washington directed at both sides,” said Lalit Mansingh, former Indian ambassador to the U.S. “So the United States should be happy.”
Similar talks have foundered repeatedly, however, in a part of the world where grand pronouncements come easily and just as easily disappear. “You can’t really expect much outcome from an hour-long meeting on the sidelines,” said Ishtiaq Ahmad, professor of international relations with Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
Control over divided Kashmir, remains a hugely emotional, contentious issue for both nations, and India is deeply angry over suspected links between insurgents in the region and Pakistan’s intelligence service.
And in India, deepening political divisions after a series of scandals could force the coalition government to backtrack, as could an electorate still angry over the November 2008 attack in Mumbai that killed 166 people, which evidence suggests was planned on Pakistani soil.
Singh and Gilani may have an eye on their historical legacies. But if Pakistan’s powerful spy agency and its army, led by Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, aren’t onboard, some say very little will change.
“The shots are being called quite clearly by Kayani, but he’s not in a mood to talk,” Mansingh said. “So we have to settle with Pakistani civilian leaders who can’t deliver.”
Anshul Rana in The Times’ New Delhi bureau and Times staff writer Alex Rodriquez in Islamabad contributed to this report.