WASHINGTON -- The key to Kabul lies in Islamabad, Adm. Mike Mullen likes to say, meaning that success in Afghanistan will be impossible without Pakistan's help. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is said to have an additional rubric: Given the political complications in that part of the world, the key to Islamabad lies in the Indian capital of New Delhi.
So it was welcome news indeed Thursday when a Pakistani government spokesman announced that India had proposed high-level talks with Pakistan --opening the way for a dialogue the region desperately needs.
How might India play the constructive role that Mullen and other top U.S. officials would like to see? The answer is easy to describe, but agonizingly difficult to put in practice: India could reassure Pakistan that as it works with the United States to contain the Taliban insurgency on its western frontier, the Indian military would ease pressure on the eastern border.
This Indo-Pak detente has been happening on the ground in a limited way in recent months, with both nations reducing their forces along the flash-point border in Kashmir.
India has mostly tried to stay out of the Af-Pak game, for understandable reasons. The Indian public is nervous about getting drawn into the regional mess, fearing more Pakistani terrorism on the order of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But some prominent Indians say privately that perhaps their country is strong enough now to take risks to help its weaker neighbor.
The India-Pakistan standoff is like one of those game-theory puzzles where both nations would be better off if they could overcome suspicions and cooperate -- in this case, by helping the U.S. to stabilize the tinderbox of Afghanistan. If Indian leaders meet this challenge, they could open a new era in South Asia; if not, they may watch Pakistan and Afghanistan sink deeper into chaos, and pay the price later.
Talking to Indian friends recently, I sense a recognition that this is a moment of opportunity. "India is happy with itself and at peace," says Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of the Indian Express newspaper in Delhi. "Right now, India is looking for someone credible to talk to in Pakistan."
Both sides have designated emissaries for back-channel talks. The Pakistani envoy is said to be Riaz Mohammad Khan, the country's former foreign secretary. His Indian counterpart reportedly is S.K. Lambah, a former ambassador to Islamabad. An earlier episode of these secret talks made real progress on Kashmir and other issues in 2007, as documented by journalist Steve Coll in The New Yorker. But the momentum was shattered by the Mumbai attack, and there appears to have been little movement since.
Both sides tell me they want to get the ball rolling again, and they point to quiet steps to reduce tension. Pakistan has moved an estimated 100,000 troops west for its campaigns against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan; India, for its part, says it has removed about 30,000 troops from the border.
While these are helpful signs, they aren't game changers. What the Indians want is evidence that Pakistan is serious about dismantling terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-i-Taiba commandoes that attacked Mumbai. The Pakistanis, for their part, need assurance that if they squeeze Muslim militants, such as the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan, India won't exploit the situation and try to gain advantage there.
Each nation fears (often with good reason) that the other's intelligence service is using Afghanistan as a staging ground. This Indo-Pak version of the "Great Game" is poisonous, and the two need to begin sharing intelligence about common threats, rather than fighting spy wars.
The Indo-Pak problem is partly one of political asymmetry. India has a strong democracy, in which the military is powerful but subordinate to political leadership. Pakistan is the opposite: The military is the most robust segment of the Pakistani elite. Military command changes there are gossiped about almost as if they were elections.
India and Pakistan were separated at birth in 1947 and they've been on the verge of fratricide ever since. But it seems to me these two countries have no alternative but to embrace their common roots and destiny. India won't be secure unless Pakistan is, and vice versa. And neither country can be comfortable so long as Afghanistan remains a battleground. In this set of shared problems, there are ought to be an opportunity for cooperation -- and Thursday's news of India's offer of talks is the best possible sign.