WASHINGTON, April 21 (UPI) -- India and Pakistan have taken another significant step back from the brink. The second- and fifth- most-populous nations on earth have both agreed to hold a new round of talks aimed at defusing tensions between them.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee held out an olive branch to Pakistan last week when he said India and Pakistan should agree to resolve the issues between them through diplomatic negotiations. The speech was warmly welcomed in Washington.
Even more important, Pakistan's leaders went out of the way to signal they were ready to pick up the olive branch being offered to them. Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri both welcomed Vajpayee's speech, delivered, significantly, in the terrorism-wracked Kashmir Valley,
And this Monday, both governments took concrete steps to rapidly translate that peaceful rhetoric into concrete diplomatic dealings.
The Pakistani government said it was willing to hold talks as soon as possible and without any preconditions, an important concession. And Vajpayee sent a top level envoy, former home secretary, or Interior Minister N.N. Vohra to Kashmir to start a new dialogue with Kashmiri groups demanding independence or merger with Pakistan for the Muslim-majority Indian province. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the ferocious guerrilla war and terrorism conflicts in Kashmir over the past decade and a half.
The new dialogue will be warmly welcomed in Washington where it is likely to be seen as a much needed boost for embattled Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Powell has lost one major foreign policy debate after another to the currently high-riding superhawks around Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, especially on Middle East issues.
But one of the biggest achievements so far in his stormy two and a quarter years time as secretary of state was his success, along with his top deputy Richard Armitage, last summer in defusing the threat of a full-scale war that could easily have gone nuclear between the two giant powers of South Asia.
Deputy Secretary of State Armitage's intense but very low profile diplomacy last summer won a crucial breathing space for tempers and tensions on both sides to cool down.
That achievement was a much more difficult and important one than was widely appreciated in the U.S. news media at the time. Well-placed U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence sources have told United Press International since then that there widespread fears among policy-makers that Armitage would not, indeed could not, succeed.
"He should have won the Nobel Peace Prize for what he pulled off," one senior serving military officer involved in the region told UPI.
But for the new talks to be successful, the leaders of India and Pakistan must repair the lasting damage that occurred when they first met.
For in July 2001, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Prime Minister Vajpayee of India met face to face in the historic northern Indian city of Agra and did not like what they saw in each other.
That summit, which was meant to be the first historic step in defusing tensions between the two giant nations of South Asia, had exactly the opposite result. The two leaders could not even agree on the wording of any joint communiqué or declaration on Kashmir, the overwhelmingly Muslim state that has been part of predominantly Hindu India since independence in 1947.
Instead, the summit left both men with markedly more unfavorable assessments of each other. Pakistani officials claimed that Indian officials had changed crucial wordings on the declaration after Vajpayee and Musharraf had initially agreed on it. Indian officials disputed this interpretation. Far from building trust between Islamabad and New Delhi, the Agra meeting destroyed any prospect of doing so.
The price for that was paid in escalating tensions over the following year that raised the specter of nuclear war over 1.2 billion people -- fully 20 percent of the human race.
Musharraf has allowed Muslim extremist guerrilla bases on the Pakistan-controlled side of the line of control in Kashmir to become active again, the Indians charged. A new wave of terror attacks slaughtered Indian women and children in Kashmir. The Indians for months appeared to be out for blood.
Like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel, Vajpayee had a hard-line reputation to maintain in the face of escalating terror attacks that had enraged public opinion in his country. And after Agra, he trusted Musharraf to rein in Pakistan-based guerrillas and terrorists as little as Sharon trusted the repeated pledges of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to rein in Palestinian suicide bombers.
Sharon's lack of trust in Arafat led to the massive Israeli military incursion into the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank a year ago. Vajpayee's lack of trust in Musharraf last summer threatened even more catastrophic consequences for the peoples of nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
Armitage's emergency "triage" diplomacy last summer won time for both sides to pull back from the brink, but could not do more than that at the time. The new, hopeful statements coming out of New Delhi and Islamabad offer hope that a more fruitful dialogue may lead to more lasting results.
The happiness and even survival of one-fifth of the human race depend upon it.