India and Pakistan have resumed high-level diplomatic talks. The discussions were preliminary — a “first step” in the words of Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao — but relations between the two are so bad and the potential fallout from a crisis so high that any progress between the two is to be applauded and encouraged. Patience is a must given the mistrust that dominates relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

The division of India and Pakistan in 1947 still defines relations between these two countries. They have fought three wars and marched to the brink of a nuclear confrontation on at least one occasion. The Muslim-populated territory of Kashmir, claimed by Pakistan but part of India, tops Islamabad’s agenda and hangs like a cloud over bilateral relations. Diplomatic talks have begun and foundered, often torpedoed by acts of violence against India. Some observers believe that factions within Pakistan have sabotaged talks to prevent any movement pending resolution of the Kashmir question to their satisfaction.

The most recent dialogue between the two countries was halted after the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai that left some 165 people dead. India insisted that Islamabad aggressively pursue the people responsible for the attack — believing that they had been trained and sheltered in Pakistan — before Delhi would resume talks. Pakistan has denied any involvement in the atrocity and argued that it is as much a victim of terrorism as India.

The talks last month reiterated those talking points. Ms. Rao restated Indian concerns about terrorist groups operating in Pakistan and provided additional information related to the Mumbai attacks. Her Pakistan counterpart, Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, said his country is doing all that it can to fight terrorism. While expressing sympathy with the victims of the Mumbai attacks, he turned the focus to Pakistan’s core concern — that terrorism should be looked at more broadly. In other words, the two countries should address the root causes of the terror campaign and, from that perspective, Kashmir is the “core issue.” Pakistani officials insist that if India shows more flexibility on Kashmir, all outstanding issues between the two countries can be resolved.

This looks a lot like the rehashing of old positions. One newer issue was on the agenda, however. Pakistan has charged that India is diverting water from the Himalayas that is badly needed in Pakistan, an allegation that India denies.

After three hours of talks, the two sides characterized the discussions as “useful.” As Ms. Rao explained, “We have set out to take a first step toward rebuilding trust, and I believe my meeting with the Pakistan foreign secretary has constituted that first step.” They agreed “to remain in touch.”

While some will laugh at the notion that this constitutes a diplomatic success, it is progress and there needs to be more of the same among two nuclear-armed neighbors with a history of enmity and a lack of communication channels. After the meeting, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his country is ready to talk on all issues with Pakistan, including Kashmir, in an atmosphere free from terror. He was right when he added that there is “no alternative” to dialogue to resolve the contentious issues in the bilateral relationship.

We would feel even better if the two countries set a date to resume full discussions.

The chief obstacle to progress is the zero-sum mentality that both sides bring to the negotiating table. For Islamabad, Kashmir is a Muslim territory and therefore should be part of the Muslim state of Pakistan. Yet for India, Kashmir is nonnegotiable, the cornerstone of its identity as a multiethnic state. The result is stalemate: Pakistan demands to have Kashmir on the agenda before it will sit down with its neighbor. And if other issues undercut Islamabad’s leverage, there can be no progress. Thus, bilateral negotiations are hostage to resolution of the Kashmir dispute on Pakistan’s terms.

That standoff is dangerous at the best of times as the two countries’ militaries stare each other across Himalayan glaciers. But the competition between the two is also being played out in Afghanistan. Both countries see that troubled country as critical to their own strategic concerns. Militant Islamic groups in Afghanistan use that territory to launch attacks against India. Both Delhi and Islamabad seek to extend their influence to Kabul to gain leverage over the groups.

Moreover, the standoff between India and Pakistan means that Islamabad must deploy troops and configure its military for a fight with its neighbor, rather than equipping and moving to fight insurgents in its own provinces. It is an extraordinary drain on resources for a state whose economy is in dire shape, and it empowers the military in the battle for political supremacy with civilian forces. Plainly, powerful forces oppose any reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

In this context, any diplomatic progress is to be encouraged. Small steps may be the best we can hope for — and even those low expectations are likely to remain unmet for some time.

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