Painted into corners

May 29, 2002

THE GOOD NEWS from Pakistan and India is that if war between them is inevitable, it probably won't get started for at least another month or so. That means there's still time to make it not so inevitable.

The bad news -- well, where to begin? With Pakistan provocatively test-firing another missile yesterday? With India deciding to refuse an invitation from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to attend talks with Pakistan next month? With Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's tough-sounding speech Monday night? With India's contemptuous rejection of that speech?

Or how about this? The U.S. commander of allied forces in Afghanistan says he believes most of the active Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have moved into Pakistan, where the Pakistani army is supposed to be taking them on -- except the Pakistani army is otherwise engaged just now, along the Indian border.

The two countries have a million soldiers staring at each other, nuclear weapons in reserve, and a decided lack of will to find a way out of the crisis.

The key may be in President Musharraf's speech and what follows. Speaking of Kashmir, he said that no terrorism would be exported from Pakistan -- which is exactly what India has been demanding. But he also said Pakistan is prepared to go to war if necessary. And he referred to India as the enemy -- a blunt verbal escalation.

Some Pakistanis believe the president was speaking harshly as a cover for his actual intentions, which are to step back and avoid a confrontation.

He's been getting plenty of pressure -- from the United States, the European Union, Russia and Great Britain -- to do just that.

In the past, he has talked peaceably but actually done nothing to restrain the Kashmiri fighters and their supporters within the Pakistani military. Maybe now he's talking tough against India because he's decided to rein in his own people.

Frankly, that would have been easier if he had not insisted on conducting a farcical referendum last month confirming his hold on power. Without that display, he would have more legitimacy and a freer hand to lead his nation in the right direction.

As it is, it's difficult to see how he could publicly give in to Indian demands without threatening his hold on power -- and if the Pakistani security services, which oversaw the rise of the Taliban, were to toss him out, it would be a disaster for the United States.

India has chosen to focus on Mr. Musharraf's harshest words. Common sense suggests that it should reverse course and make a dramatic show of taking the first step toward peace. That would ease the pressure on the Pakistani president -- and perhaps allow him to do the right thing. And that would be the first genuine good news from the region in a long time.

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