London: In all the feverish debate about Afghanistan, one of the most explosive issues is off-stage: the relationship between India and Pakistan.
Rivals for influence in Afghanistan, the two countries have made incremental progress in repairing relations soured by last year’s attack on Mumbai blamed on by Pakistan-based militants.
Their top diplomats and foreign ministers will also hold talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this month, their fourth bilateral meeting since June.
But they are a long way from a breakthrough, with India saying it will not resume formal peace talks with Pakistan until it takes more action against the militants blamed for Mumbai.
Washington is keen to see an improvement in relations between the two nuclear-armed countries to ease tensions across the region and encourage the Pakistan army to focus on fighting Islamist militants rather than its perceived threat from India.
But wary of Indian sensitivities about outside interference in the 60-year-old Kashmir dispute, it rarely says so overtly.
“There is a deep understanding of the centrality of normalisation between Pakistan and India,” said Steve Coll at the New America Foundation.
“It’s well understood. It’s discussed frequently at the highest levels of the Obama administration. But it’s not something they would signal in public.”
In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has led the way in working towards what eventually could be a historic breakthrough with Pakistan. But he has come under fire at home for moving too quickly without greater action from Pakistan against militants.
Even his cabinet colleagues have urged him to tread warily for fear of a another big attack that might trigger a popular backlash against the Congress-led government, analysts say.
“They will go ahead with it,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. “Manmohan Singh is not stepping back. But it will be very cautious.”
“I think the Prime Minister is genuinely isolated on this,” said Praveen Swami, a Kashmir expert at The Hindu newspaper.
Pakistan’s civilian government wants a resumption of peace talks and says the best way to prevent another big attack is for both countries to work together and exchange information.
But it is unclear how far the Islamabad government can persuade the powerful army to target militant groups it once nurtured to use against India; its military operations so far have been limited to tackling militants which threaten Pakistan.
Hedging bets on Afghanistan
And many believe the decisions the US makes in the coming weeks on showing its commitment to the Afghan war will be crucial in influencing the attitude of Pakistan’s army.
Coll argues that Washington needs to demonstrate its commitment to Afghanistan to dispel ambivalence within Pakistan’s security services about taking on Islamist militants.
“If you get off their border and give them the idea that we’re done fighting the Taliban, those who have been sitting on the fence are going to come off the fence,” he said.
Many fear that if the Pakistan army believes the US might leave sooner rather than later, it will become even more reluctant to turn against the Afghan Taliban -- whose leader, Mullah Omar, Washington says is based in Pakistan.
After backing the Taliban in Afghanistan before 2001 to counter Indian and Iranian influence in the region, it would be unlikely to move against them now if they seemed set to win.
India has bad memories of Taliban rule, when Afghanistan was used as a base for militant groups fighting in Kashmir.
So any hint of an early US exit could revive a proxy war between Pakistan and India in Afghanistan, in turn exacerbating tensions over Kashmir and along their border.
“The lack of clarity (on Afghanistan) is leading everyone to hedge their bets,” said Swami. “The whole thing is turning into such a mess.”
So far, progress in easing fraught relations has been largely sporadic and behind-the-scenes.
The Pakistan army, in what the US special envoy called a “significant redeployment”, moved troops from its heavily militarised border with India to fight Pakistani Taliban militants in the Swat valley and on the Afghan border.
And in what was seen as a gesture of flexibility, the head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency—accused by India of masterminding militancy in Kashmir—attended an “iftar” Ramadan feast hosted by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad this month.
The government has also signalled a willingness to return to informal peace talks, known as “backchannel diplomacy”, which had hammered out a roadmap for resolving the Kashmir dispute under former president Pervez Musharraf.
That roadmap effectively acknowledged the current division of Kashmir between Pakistan and India, while aiming to make borders irrelevant and grant the region more autonomy.
But Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said these informal talks would work only if they were held in parallel with a formal peace process.
And India is insisting it wants to focus its talks on fighting terrorism rather than seeking a peace deal.
So for now the New York talks are unlikely to do much more than clear the air, possibly paving the way for a more productive meeting between the two prime ministers on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit in Trinidad in November.
And that will also depend on what happens in Afghanistan.