The regional rivalry between India and Pakistan complicates the stabilization of Afghanistan and the fight against global terrorism. Yet the US has little leverage to coax the two sides into a genuine peace process that can reframe their relationship in the context of 21st century economic and political realities. The best the US can do is facilitate better communication between the two governments, propose creative ideas for building mutual confidence, and avoid seeking a direct role in addressing Kashmir, which would undoubtedly raise false expectations in Islamabad and alienate New Delhi. That might just help Pakistan get realistic.

To the region’s benefit, US President Barack Obama’s thinking on Kashmir has evolved considerably over the last year. As a presidential candidate, Obama raised alarm bells in India by telling a television interviewer that he would consider appointing a Kashmir envoy. By contrast, in late November he told a reporter, during a press conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that the US would not seek to resolve longstanding India-Pakistan conflicts but rather “encourage ways in which both countries can feel secure and focus on the development of their own countries and people".

Photo: Aman Sharma / AP

By tempering expectations about a potential US role in the Kashmir imbroglio, Obama has taken an important step in encouraging the two sides to be more realistic about solutions. Past progress on Kashmir between former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Singh indicates there is scope for forward movement, without direct US involvement.

In December 2006, Musharraf declared that Pakistan would give up its claim to Kashmir if India agreed to a four-part solution that keeps current boundaries intact and makes the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir “irrelevant"; demilitarizes the LoC; develops a plan for self-governance of Kashmir; and institutes a mechanism for joint Indo-Pak supervision of the region. Pakistanis argue that the Indians dropped the ball by not responding to Musharraf’s overture, while Indians argue that, with Musharraf’s power eroding, there was little point in taking up the unprecedented offer. Incidentally, India has begun demilitarizing Jammu and Kashmir by removing around 30,000 troops over the last year.

Over the past decades, India has made its share of mistakes in Kashmir and in its relations with Pakistan. But today, it is Pakistan’s denial over the terrorism issue that poses the single greatest threat to establishing peace in South Asia. Pakistan’s failure to shut down the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) more than one year after its attacks in Mumbai —and with knowledge that the group is planning to conduct similar attacks—leads to the conclusion that Pakistan seeks to provoke an Indo-Pak military conflict.

Indeed, given David Headley’s revelations about ties between the terrorist group and the Pakistani army, the lack of action against LeT defies rationality. The case has finally awakened US officials to the gravity of the international threat posed by Pakistan’s failure to crack down on terrorist groups, including those that primarily target India. It has also raised questions about whether there was official Pakistani involvement in the Mumbai attacks.

A rational Pakistani response to the Headley case would be to offer the US full cooperation. This would bolster Pakistan’s anti-terrorism credentials and clear its name. No responsible country wants to be accused of official complicity in terrorism.

Instead, Pakistan keeps reverting to denial mode. Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, Shahid Malik, said on 20 December that India was not fulfilling its commitment to resuming bilateral talks—as made in the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement. He said India’s choice not to talk to Pakistan was “strengthening the forces which don’t want the two countries to make any progress". But what can strengthen those forces more than a state’s refusal to punish them? Twisting the facts on Mumbai to try to gain diplomatic mileage on India will provide diminishing returns to Pakistan in the post-Headley world.

Pakistanis may find it easier to cry foul and blame the US for siding with India over the LeT and Headley investigations. But the US must stick to its counterterrorism principles, even as it encourages peace and dialogue in the region.

The US role in the historical Indo-Pak dispute is to provide objectivity and to point out to each side the likely consequences of not seeking accommodation with each other. Islamabad, meanwhile, must be realistic. It should recognize that Washington will take an uncompromising position against all forms of terrorism, especially when its own citizens are targets, as they were in the Mumbai rampage.

India and Pakistan have a historic opportunity to narrow their differences and begin a fruitful dialogue. Second-time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom Obama rightly called a “man of peace", is willing to go the extra mile to move talks forward. But like any leader, his first and foremost responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of his countrymen. Before he can take a chance on dialogue with Pakistan, he must be able to tell the Indian people with confidence that Pakistan is making every effort to prevent another Mumbai-like attack.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank. Comments are welcome at