U.S. hopes to withdraw forces and leave behind a stable Afghanistan may rest on whether Pakistan and India can lower bilateral tensions and refrain from using Afghan territory for a new proxy war.

Talks Wednesday in New Delhi between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan ended with an upbeat assessment that these historic rivals can improve relations. S.M. Krishna of India and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar pledged to strengthen joint efforts against terrorism and reduce restrictions on trade and travel in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Regional experts say improving economic and people-to-people ties are key to reducing the chances for conflict between two nuclear-armed countries that have fought three wars since partition in 1947 and come close to war several times in the past 12 years.

“Economics can be a bridge to peace-building,” said Moeed Yusuf, an advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Speaking Tuesday at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, Yusuf called the low level of trade between the neighbours “absurd given the complimentarities” of the two economies. Pakistan, he said, should give India most favoured nation status for imports and India should reduce non-tariff barriers to trade.

Aparna Pande, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, predicted that India would soon announce changes in its visa policies to make it easier for Pakistani businessmen, legislators and the elderly to cross the border.

“The more you let people in, the more you know they are the same people,” Pande told IPS.

She said “the most important thing” is that India and Pakistan – which resumed dialogue in February for the first time since the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistani terrorists – are still talking in the aftermath of new bombings in Mumbai last month. Responsibility for the latest attacks has not been established.

Working groups of the Indian and Pakistani governments are addressing Afghanistan, she said. Pakistan is extremely nervous about India’s growing political and economic presence there and fears that a pro- India Kabul government is part of an Indian strategy of encirclement.

India, which has an embassy and four consulates in Afghanistan and has given the country about two billion dollars in aid, worries in turn that Pakistan will promote the return to power of the Taliban and allied fundamentalist groups such as the Haqqani network. That could trigger a new civil war between Pashtun fundamentalists and elements of the old Northern Alliance of ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks who in the past were supported by India, Russia and Iran.

Amer Latif, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said India-Pakistan competition in Afghanistan is a “Gordian knot” that must be cut for Afghanistan to succeed.

He called for joint economic projects and promotion of trade corridors benefiting all three countries, as well as other forms of dialogue and cooperation to reduce distrust. Among Latif’s suggestions: maritime cooperation against piracy, and joint exercises in search and rescue missions and on disaster response.

Shuja Nawaz, head of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, told a Congressional committee Tuesday that reopening old trade corridors between Central and South Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India could bring big dividends, with commerce rising from a current level of “two billion dollars a year to 100 billion dollars a year – much more than any potential U.S. aid” to Pakistan.

Experts also advocate greater transparency about nuclear programmes to ease distrust and reduce the chances for a war that would devastate both countries.

Pakistan has increased its nuclear arsenal to deter India, a strategy based on the view that India is an existential threat – even though India has repeatedly stressed that a stable and successful Pakistan is in New Delhi’s interest. Pakistan’s reluctance to crack down on jihadi groups such as Lashkar-e Taiba that have targeted India reflects an unwillingness to give up tools against Indian control of Kashmir.

Latif expressed hope that a rising generation of Pakistani officers – having spent much of the last few years focused on combating a growing terrorist threat within Pakistan – would experience a “paradigm shift” and no longer see India as the major security threat. He said the United States can play a role by encouraging the two sides to talk and organising trilateral military exercises.

Washington has been hampered by India’s refusal to accept outside mediation of the dispute over Kashmir and by bureaucratic divisions that created a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and left India in a separate office of the State Department. The U.S. military is even more divided, with Pacific Command responsible for India and Central Command, whose primary area of operation is in the Middle East, for Pakistan.

Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for improving relations rests with India and Pakistan.

Pande said that Pakistan has to stop seeking parity with a country that is seven times larger and growing five times as fast. India, she noted, gave Pakistan most favoured nation trade status in 1995 but Pakistan has yet to reciprocate even though it stands to gain more from trade and investment.

With Indian labour costs rising, Indian firms – particularly in the service sector – might begin to outsource jobs to Pakistan, she said. Pakistan needs cement while India needs cotton, she added.

To help stabilise Afghanistan, meanwhile, Pakistan needs to define what it regards as an acceptable political outcome as the U.S. withdraws – one that can also be accepted by other neighbours.

“Ultimately Afghanistan has to be solved by the neighbourhood,” said Geoffrey Kemp, director of research at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “Just as they agreed to us coming in, we need their agreement in coming out.”

Barbara Slavin is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. This article originally appeared on ipsnews.net.

Related Experts: Barbara Slavin