ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — India and Pakistan agreed Tuesday to start formal peace talks next month, ending more than two years of confrontation between the nuclear-armed neighbors that almost exploded into all-out war.
Details such as precisely when and where the talks would begin, and who would open the negotiations, still must be worked out. But India accepted Pakistan's long-standing demand that all bilateral disputes -- and not just the conflict over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir -- be on the table.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf called the deal a historic breakthrough that he hoped would finally resolve a 56-year dispute over Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan. The region has been wracked by guerrilla war and terrorist attacks since separatists began fighting Indian rule in the area in 1989.
"There are no winners and losers here," Musharraf said. "I think the victory is for the world, for all the peace-loving people of the world."
Hopes for lasting peace between India and Pakistan have been raised, and dashed, by successive leaders for decades, so it's anyone's guess whether Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will succeed this time around.
Both say they are driven by the desire of ordinary citizens in South Asia to end old conflicts so that money can be spent on reducing the world's largest population of poor people instead of building up armies. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. and the subsequent war in Afghanistan also put foreign pressure on India and Pakistan to resolve the conflict over Kashmir, a key battleground for Islamic extremists and militants linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Political pressures are working against a deal, though. At 79, Vajpayee is not expected to finish out another five-year term if he is reelected this year. A front-runner to take over power if Vajpayee retires is his hawkish deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani. Pakistani officials say Advani scuttled a plan for peace at a Musharraf-Vajpayee summit in July 2001 -- an allegation India denies.
Musharraf faces his own political problems. To secure his hold on power until 2007, he has made deals with hard-line Islamic parties to whom Kashmir is a sacred cause. He now has to persuade the mullahs, and militant groups based in Pakistan, to make the difficult compromises required for peace.
Tuesday's agreement came after Musharraf met face to face Monday with Vajpayee, who came to Islamabad, the capital, for a regional leaders' summit. Vajpayee also met Sunday with his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali. The Indian leader had insisted that if he decided to meet Pakistani leaders on the sidelines, he would not discuss anything significant.
But Pakistani and Indian officials, including Vajpayee's national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, were already negotiating a new start to peace talks behind the scenes. Vajpayee, who says he is making his last effort in his lifetime for peace, called Musharraf on Tuesday morning and "sealed this final deal," the Pakistani president said.
"I would like to give total credit to his vision and his statesmanship," Musharraf told reporters at his presidential palace. He later added: "History has been made in that we have arrived at an agreement on taking this normalization process forward, and a framework taking it to its logical end."
Vajpayee left Islamabad on Tuesday without commenting on the agreement. With elections looming, he must be careful not to rile Hindu nationalists who insist India must never give up its claim to all of Kashmir.
Relations between India and Pakistan have suffered sudden, often violent, mood swings since Britain divided the subcontinent and granted the two countries independence in 1947. They have fought three wars since then, two of them over Kashmir.
Highlighting the broad gulf that still divides the two countries, Tuesday's agreement was announced in separate news conferences at which the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers read out identical, carefully negotiated press statements.
Still, the two leaders agreed on three critical points. First, negotiations will be "a composite dialogue" on all bilateral issues, including trade and energy resources, not only Kashmir. Second, confidence-building measures, such as renewed air and road links, and promises of more people-to-people contacts, must be consolidated and increased. And third, territory that Pakistan controls cannot be used to support terrorism of any type.
Musharraf's commitment on the third point persuaded Vajpayee to agree to negotiations, Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said. Although Musharraf has made such pledges before, a reported meeting last week between Indian national security advisor Mishra and the chief of Musharraf's Inter-Services Intelligence agency -- which neither side has denied took place -- may have been crucial to persuading India that Musharraf will deliver on his promises.