Pakistan’s leader extends an olive branch to India - or maybe not

An Indian Border Security Force soldier patrols near the fence at the de facto border with Pakistan in the Kashmir region.
(Jaipal Singh / European Pressphoto Agency)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – With charges, counter-charges and distrust wafting across the disputed Pakistan-India border like acrid smoke, news spread quickly across South Asia on Tuesday that Pakistan’s new leader had urged both countries to come together with a “clean heart” and resolve all outstanding issues in the interest of a new beginning.

The reported comments by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif suggested a willingness to push back at the growing recriminations on both sides following a series of clashes in recent days along the de facto border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control.

Only one problem. It appears that Sharif didn’t make the comments this week, but rather some time ago when relations were, well, a whole lot rosier.

“Let us make a new beginning,” the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan quoted Sharif as saying to a TV news channel late Monday. “Let us sit together to resolve all outstanding issues in a friendly manner and in a peaceful atmosphere.”


Late Tuesday, the news agency did a mea culpa of sorts, saying its story was based on an old interview it picked up from the TV news channel that hadn’t been labeled “file” footage. “The news agency regrets the mistake,” it said. “The story stands withdrawn.”

Last week, five Indian soldiers were shot to death on the Indian side of the Line of Control. New Delhi has blamed the Pakistani army, an allegation Pakistan denies.

The atmosphere of suspicion has threatened to derail efforts at resuming peace talks and expanding cross-border trade. The tit-for-tat continued this week with each side blaming the other for further cease-fire violations Tuesday. This followed Pakistan’s accusations Monday that Indian shelling had killed a civilian. India denied the charge and said Pakistan fired first.

Journalists in Islamabad said that in retrospect, it was unusual that such a significant statement by the Pakistani prime minister hadn’t been released by his office. But it was also strange, they said, that his office never publicly denied that the statement was new.

Sharif was elected in June on a pledge to stem terrorism, fix the economy and improve relations with India. On Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf expressed concern over the recent violence and urged both sides to work on improving relations.

Believing Sharif’s olive branch was offered this week, Indian officials had worked to craft the right, decidedly tepid, response, saying it was too soon after last week’s killings to think about sitting down with Pakistan. The Indian military claims Pakistan has violated the nations’ cease-fire at least 57 times in 2013, including eight times in the last four days.

“There is a sense of disappointment,” Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters Tuesday. “We first need to get back to normal.”

Even if it wants to improve relations, the Indian government finds itself under growing political pressure from lawmakers with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party who have disrupted Parliament, called for the suspension of all talks with Pakistan and accused the government of weakness.

Some Indian analysts welcomed Sharif’s effort at reconciliation – new or old -- but questioned whether he has the full support of his country’s powerful military establishment.

“He’s tried within his limits to improve relations with India,” said Salman Haider, a New Delhi-based analyst and former foreign secretary. “Whether he can do what he seems to wish to do remains to be seen.”

Pakistan analyst Mehmood Shah, a retired brigadier general, said Sharif’s push for better relations was almost certainly made in consultation with the army brass and was genuine.

“Nawaz Sharif has always pursued a policy of having friendly relations with India,” he said. “He is sincere in this regard.”

Media standards aside, one thing is clear. History isn’t easily forgotten by these neighbors that have fought three wars since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

“What you see recently is a fragility in the situation,” said Haider. “A few mischief makers can easily derail the situation -- on both sides.”


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Twitter: @markmagnier

Special correspondent Khan reported from Islamabad and Magnier from New Delhi.