Pervez Hoodbhoy: When Manmohan Singh comes to Islamabad

The coincidence between President Asif Ali Zardari’s sprint to Delhi last week, and the $10 million head-money on Hafiz Saeed announced by the US could be purely accidental. But this action certainly refocused Indian attention on the alleged Mumbai attack planner, who heads the pantheon of jihadi ‘heroes’ that now freely parades across Pakistan. In such circumstances, holding the olive branch before PM Manmohan Singh surely required guts. The scepticism to Zardari in India was, of course, predictable. It is easy to pooh-pooh the visit. Mr Zardari is not a popular president or a clean one, and the PPP is unlikely to survive the elections scheduled in a few months from now. Plus, he wields no power on issues that India considers critical: nuclear weapons, Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Most importantly, he can do nothing to rein in the anti-India jihadist network, a matter that belongs squarely to the army’s domain. Moving against Hafiz Saeed is not an option. Zardari cannot forget Memogate - which he somehow survived but Ambassador Husain Haqqani did not.

And yet, a weak and embattled government did something refreshingly good for the country. According India the MFN status for trade and related commercial activity is sure to be a game-changer that could bring peace and prosperity to the region. Ignoring the angry howls of the Difah-e-Pakistan crowd, the government for once listened to the country’s majority - most Pakistanis do want trade with India even though they consider it a threat. Still better news is that the Zardari-Singh joint communique says “practical, pragmatic” solutions will be sought for disputes. Showing his willingness to put Mumbai 2008 on the back-burner, Singh accepted Zardari’s invitation to Islamabad. This is exactly the way it should be; frequent high-level meetings are the best confidence-building measures.

But what should the two sides talk about? Surely, there are many issues but here are the top five on which progress is both necessary and, more importantly, possible.

First, let both countries agree to immediately vacate the killing ice fields of Siachen. This insane war at 22,000 feet has claimed hundreds of lives on both sides; 138 Pakistani soldiers and civilian contractors are still being searched for after a mountain of snow crashed on them last week. Maintaining control over a system of Himalayan glaciers has come at a dreadful cost to human lives and resources, and has also irreversibly polluted a pristinely pure environment. But to what end? There are no minerals in Siachen; not even a blade of grass can grow there. This is just a stupid battle between two monster-sized national egos.

Second, let them talk about water — seriously. But please have the Pakistani side well-prepared for solid technical discussions. This means having real experts with facts at their fingertips. They must know about spillway design, sediment control, DSLs, drawdowns, sluicing, etc. I have seen too many duffers represent our side at Pakistan-India meetings where water inevitably comes up. Their lack of knowledge becomes painfully apparent and the Indians start smirking...

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