It is a rare occasion these days when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gets to be the bearer of good news. He survived two assassination attempts in December and is currently fending off an international scandal over the sale of the country's nuclear secrets to other countries, including Iran and Libya.
So General Musharraf must have been particularly satisfied yesterday when he announced that Pakistan and India had agreed a "road map" for talks aimed at ending the nuclear-armed rivals' decades-old enmity, which has prompted three wars.
Following three days of discussions in Islamabad between senior bureaucrats, the two countries set a timetable that names the disputed territory of Kashmir as one the first topics for discussion.
Pakistan has long insisted that the fate of the mountainous region be included in the initial stages of any talks.
"The process we started is moving forward smoothly toward a solution," said Gen. Musharraf, who announced the breakthrough talks in January with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, although neither was personally involved in this week's negotiations.
Under the agreement, high-level diplomats from the two countries will meet to discuss Kashmir in May or June -- after India's April elections.
Separate meetings will be held on nuclear-confidence-building measures, drug trafficking and smuggling.
Mid-level technical discussions will take place in March to discuss bus services between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled portions of Kashmir and transport connections between the rest of the countries.
After there has been progress on all points on the agenda, the talks will be elevated from the technical level to the political level.
Diplomats from both countries said yesterday that the atmosphere for the talks was "positive," "cordial" and "productive," fulfilling the two sides' carefully managed expectations.
The initial success was a victory for both leaders, and a welcome bright spot for Gen. Musharraf.
Yet even as he pushes ahead with the peace process, the Pakistani leader must walk a familiar tightrope between domestic and international pressures, according to analysts and diplomatsin Islamabad.
To convince India and the Western powers of his commitment to peace, Gen. Musharraf has had to turn his back on the Islamic militant groups that are fighting for Kashmir's independence and that have traditionally been fostered by the Pakistani military.
"The mainstream wants good relations with India, but it is the fringe that is opposed and is very vocal, very powerful, very militant," said Talat Masood, a retired army general and political commentator.
The militants' wrath was demonstrated in December's incidents. First, a bomb wired under a bridge exploded moments after the President's convoy passed, then two suicide bombers drove trucks laden with explosives into his motorcade.
Last week, police arrested two members of Jaish-i-Mohammed, a banned militant organization that once enjoyed support from the military establishment, in connection with the attacks.
Conscious of the political cost of backing away from the militants and compromising with India, Gen. Musharraf announced yesterday's agreement at a conference for moderate Islamic clerics, emphasizing that he does not intend to sell out on Kashmir.
"If a solution is not found according to the wishes of the Kashmiris, then a
solution will not be found," he said.
Analysts said the plan's political risks are lower than they were during more rancorous periods of bilateral relations, but warned that the atmosphere will become less tolerant if concessions to India are not matched with progress on the ground in Kashmir -- a decrease in Indian military crackdowns, peace along the so-called Line of Control.
How the recent nuclear debacle will play into the peace process is unclear. The scandal has increased international pressure on Gen. Musharraf, and weakened him at home at a time when he is trying to market the idea of warmer relations with India to a population, and a military, that has been fed a doctrine of enmity for decades.
"He's way out in front of the pack on this one," said one Western diplomat.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: