Pakistani President Asif Zardari's recently concluded visit to India was facilitated by the United States administration which is eager to see both the two nuclear armed South Asian neighbours indulge in a meaningful dialogue for peace, which Washington believes is vital for the success of the Afghan end game.
According to well-informed diplomats in Islamabad, despite being declared a private trip by the Pakistan government, President Zardari's India visit was indeed an official tour by all means, which was aimed at giving a thrust from the top-level to the lethargic tempo of India-Pak peace process.
The US administration made hectic behind-the-scenes efforts to make the Pakistani president's India visit a success because US President Barack Obama wants the ongoing Washington-Taliban peace talks in Doha to be productive, which is impossible without Islamabad's support.
US policy-makers know that the Pakistani security establishment has strong concerns about India's growing role in Afghanistan and unless there are normal ties between Islamabad and Delhi, or any progress towards that, the Pakistani leadership won't extend its helping hand to the US with full sincerity to make the peace talks with the Afghan Taliban a success.
Therefore, the US administration decided to facilitate a meaningful dialogue between Pakistan and India, at the end of which the Pakistani president was to invite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Islamabad and the latter was to graciously accept the invitation.
Islamabad-based diplomatic circles say the Zardari-Manmohan meeting went well as per the American expectations as the Indian premier did not set any preconditions this time to visit Pakistan, as had been the case in the past when he used to reiterate his government's position that the environment in India in the wake of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai was not free of hostility towards Islamabad.
Diplomats privy to behind-the-scene American efforts for an India-Pak detente say the US interest in Delhi-Islamabad talks can be gauged from the official reaction given by the White House soon after the Manmohan-Zardari meeting.
Terming President Asif Zardari's visit to India as very constructive, the US state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said it was pleased at the decision of Prime Minister Singh to visit Pakistan in the near future. 'As we have said for a long time, we believe that expanded and improved engagement between the two neighbours is not only going to help them, they're going to help the entire region and provide opportunities for millions of citizens in the neighbourhood to live in a more secure and stable region. So we applaud, we trend and we hope that India and Pakistan continue to build on this progress, and we look forward to more such meetings', Nuland added.
The high-ups in the Pakistani foreign office in Islamabad are of the view that the Zardari-Manmohan talks in Delhi were cordial by all accounts, as indicated by the Indian premier's gesture to accept the Pakistani president's invitation to visit Pakistan in the near future. This was the first time a Pakistani head of state had visited India since President General Pervez Musharraf's 2005 visit, marking another landmark in the slow return to normalcy.
One of the more unheralded achievements of the Pakistan People's Party government has been the way it has repaired relations from the nadir of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, when war seemed a very realistic possibility. Rather than try to be overly ambitious, the Zardari-led government in Islamabad has cautiously taken small steps towards lasting peace, with trade and regular high-level meetings inching the process forward.
Post-Zardari visit, it would be in order to visualise the future prospects of India-Pak ties. Both Zardari and Singh reportedly agreed to inch ahead, in their words, 'take a step-by-step approach' towards normalisation. Viewing the steps so far taken by the two sides since the composite dialogue process began early 2004, one finds that though some moves have been made that could fall under the definition of 'normalisation', not even a relatively minor dispute, let alone the core issue of Kashmir that is of major concern to Pakistan, has inched any closer to solution. Meetings after meetings between the foreign ministers and the foreign secretaries of the two countries have produced thoroughly dull statements of 'constructive and fruitful dialogue' having taken place.
However, a substantial point that emerged from last week's Zardari-Manmohan talks was their willingness to reinforce the India-China model under which trade relations would be strengthened while contentious issues such as Jammu and Kashmir would be resolved, using a step-by-step approach. The India-China model is already being followed, as Pakistan has finally given the most favoured nation status to India and is keen to enhance commercial ties with it.
Just like China and India strengthening their trade ties at great speed while refusing to give an inch in context of their border and other disputes, it seems India and Pakistan are prepared to take the same route. The long-pending touchy issues of Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek may not be resolved in the near future, but trade between the two countries is expected to pick up and there would be greater incentive to make peace.
By ignoring the need to educate the people on the imperative of peace with India, successive governments in Islamabad have denied themselves the possibility of building upon peace accords. According to IA Rehman, a noted former newspaper editor, intellectual and the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, what is urgently needed is a frank discourse that should enable the Pakistani people to bury the myth that friendship with India can never be in their interest."It was this mindset that threw up the plea against President Zardari's recent trip to New Delhi on the morrow of the Siachen tragedy, although this was the right time for the leaders of the two countries to take fresh stock of their costly confrontation in glacier-land and to ponder the consequences of their 1989 retreat from a sane compromise. The tragedy at the world's highest battlefield should be enough to necessitate a final push for an India-Pak bilateral drawdown."