Nuclear Kashmir

May 17, 2002

INDIA AND PAKISTAN last met to discuss their dispute over Kashmir in July of last year -- talks that ended badly with claims that Indian hard-liners had scuttled any formal agreement. Now both nations must be brought back into sustained negotiations, and this can only happen with more pressure on both sides from the United States.

The stakes cannot be overstated -- for the United States, which has short-term interests in rooting out Islamic terrorists in Pakistan, and even more critically for all nations interested in lowering the very real potential for the world's first nuclear war.

Despite U.S. efforts since Sept. 11, that potential has been sharply rising. In December, Islamic militants audaciously attacked India's parliament. That was followed in February and early March by the murders of an estimated 1,000 Muslims in horrific attacks by Hindus in the Indian state of Gujarat. Just this week, 34 people, including many women and children, were killed in an attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir, only the latest such action attributed to separatist guerillas harbored in Pakistan.

The two sides already have fought two of their three wars in Kashmir's icy mountains. Both tested nuclear weapons as recently as 1998. In March, CIA Director George Tenet said the two countries were as close as they've come in 30 years to nuclear war. Right now, they've massed a combined million troops on their 1,800-mile border.

Two days of talks this week with a U.S. emissary have not deterred India. Its leaders are talking publicly of counterattacks, and its parliament is debating options today.

The challenge for the United States is how to get both countries to stand down. The impediment is that both governments are so weak they cannot appear to be giving in to the other on a highly emotional issue.

At the moment, the ball is in India's court. It could cross the border in limited attacks on militant camps, based on a possible miscalculation that Pakistan wouldn't respond. Then Pakistan might launch terrorist attacks in India's cities. Just a few more such moves, and warheads might be in play.

The first step out of this scenario is for the United States to pressure India into committing to a firm date by which it would begin a continuing dialogue with Pakistan over Kashmir. The United States then could take that to Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and lean harder on him to stop supporting cross-border terrorism in Kashmir.

General Musharraf promised to do that months ago, but so far his rhetoric has far outstripped his actions. He may figure he can get away with that, given how much the United States needs him in tracking down al-Qaida followers in Pakistan. But the mounting tensions with India are drawing Pakistan's military resources from that pursuit -- and averting a nuclear war over Kashmir has greater long-term consequences than even finding more followers of Osama bin Laden.

Keep in mind that wedding both sides in this intractable, more than 50-year-old conflict to negotiations would be difficult, and it would not likely produce much result right away. But it would make far less likely the absolutely unthinkable.

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