Can India and Pakistan Learn to Cooperate?

If there is a lesson to be learned in the tragic Mumbai terrorist attacks, it is the urgent need for India and Pakistan finally to begin sharing intelligence information and start coordinating antiterrorist operations together. But such essential cooperation seems a long way off. Both countries' premier foreign intelligence agencies—India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—are in fact engaged in promoting low-intensity conflicts between the two nuclear-armed neighbors that have fought three major wars. Each agency suspects the other of promoting very different and threatening agendas in the volatile region, not unlike the cold war rivalry between the CIA and the KGB. As a result, it's difficult too see how India and Pakistan, and their spy agencies, can learn to work together to identify and prevent threats to each other's national security.

Still, there were some initial signs of hope in the wake of the assault on India's financial and commercial center, Mumbai. To show his deep concern over the attacks, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani telephoned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday morning and agreed to send his new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, a former director of military operations, to New Delhi immediately for consultations with his Indian counterparts. This gesture could have marked a new beginning in intelligence sharing and cooperation. But it was quickly vetoed by Pakistan's powerful military, which saw it as an admission of guilt and capitulation to Indian pressure. Instead, Islamabad will dispatch a lower-level ISI official. As a result, there is little hope for a breakthrough anytime soon, given the deep and lingering mistrust between the two sides. But so far neither side has made any troop movements toward their mutual border, nor are any expected soon.

Even so, India suspects that Pakistan and the ISI are still promoting unrest and armed rebellion in the Indian-occupied sector of Kashmir, the former princely state that both nations claim. It says Islamabad has not done enough to completely dismantle the ISI-assisted, Islamist jihadi groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, that vow to free Kashmir from Indian rule and that have previously carried out attacks on Indian soil. New Delhi also accuses the ISI of assisting the Afghan Taliban to stage cross-border attacks against the U.S. and NATO forces and those of India's close ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, from their havens within Pakistan's tribal area. This past summer India charged the ISI with helping the Taliban attack the Indian Embassy in Kabul with a vehicle-borne suicide bomb that killed some 50 people.

Pakistan, too, blames RAW, and by extension India, for attempting to undermine its national security. Islamabad feels strategically surrounded by India and its allies. It sees India's strong economic, diplomatic and intelligence presence in neighboring Afghanistan as a threat to the country from the west, a menace in Pakistani eyes that is just as real as the Indian Army presence on its eastern border. Pakistan also accuses RAW of fueling an armed separatist movement in the country's huge and resource-rich Baluchistan province that borders on Afghanistan. It goes further by hinting that India is even giving support to Pakistani Taliban forces in the tribal area that are believed to have been responsible for a spate of suicide bombings against the country's security forces and civilian targets such as the deadly Marriott Hotel blast in Islamabad this past September. It also accuses India of taking more than its fair share of river water in upstream dam-construction projects, threatening the livelihoods of millions of Pakistanis living downstream.

Part of the problem is that while there may be an atmosphere of détente and goodwill between the two countries' top political leaders, that willingness to cooperate does not filter down through the intelligence and national-security bureaucracies. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari shocked some Pakistanis when he stated in a video conference call to an audience in India last week that to improve relations between the two regional powers Pakistan could renounce the first-use option of nuclear weapons, offer visa-free travel across their shared borders, and even ventured that there's "a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani." But to many Pakistanis such feel-good gestures smacked of "surrender without a battle," according to at least one newspaper headline. Pakistan's intelligence agencies and its powerful military still see India as a clear and present danger. "As long as Pakistan perceives India as a threat, it has to be prepared for that threat," says a senior Pakistani official. "We want to reduce tensions [between us] and we are trying to move forward," he adds. "You can make positive statements and improve the atmosphere, but you cannot drop your guard."

The status of Kashmir is key. As long as India drags it feet on solving the 60-year-old dispute over Kashmir, Islamabad will find it difficult to trust India. While former President Pervez Musharraf was at the height of his authoritarian powers three years ago, there seemed to be some movement on substantially reducing tension over Kashmir. But as Musharraf's power waned drastically since then, New Delhi seems to have lost interest in pushing the dialogue forward.

To be sure, Pakistan has seriously erred in not moving vigorously enough to dismantle the various Kashmiri jihadi groups that the ISI had helped create in the 1980s in order to exploit the existing unrest among Kashmiris resisting New Delhi's draconian rule. While Musharraf officially banned the groups, the ISI and Pakistani security forces never crushed them. Lashkar-e-Taiba, for example, continued operating under another name, while other groups simply went underground and gravitated to the Al Qaeda- and Taliban-influenced tribal areas. There, their agendas widened from simply a Kashmir focus to wider anti-Indian and even anti-Western goals.

Given this deep and long history of mistrust, it's hard to see how New Delhi and Islamabad can somehow restore a modicum of mutual confidence and begin sharing intelligence and cooperating together against jihadi groups whose targets include the destruction of both states. That will be a major task U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will face: how to get India and Pakistan to work together for their common good.