WASHINGTON - The United States stepped up its efforts to prevent all-out war between South Asia's nuclear-armed neighbors yesterday as President Bush demanded that Pakistan halt incursions by Muslim militants into the Indian-ruled part of Kashmir.
Bush announced that he is dispatching Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to India and Pakistan next week in a bid to prevent the conflict in the disputed territory from spiraling out of control and endangering millions.
Rumsfeld will follow a series of other high-level international envoys to the region, including top diplomats from the European Union, Britain and, earlier next week, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
"We are making it very clear to both Pakistan and India that war will not serve their interests," Bush said after a Cabinet meeting. "We are part of an international coalition applying pressure to both parties."
Bush had unusually blunt words for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has been a valued American ally in helping U.S. forces battle the Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan and the forbidding tribal areas of western Pakistan.
"He must stop the incursions across the Line of Control. He must do so. He said he would do so," the president said. "We and others are making it clear to him that he must live up to his word." The Line of Control is the unofficial border between the sections of Kashmir that are ruled by India and Pakistan.
As war fears grow, a senior official said the State Department would decide "any day now" whether to cut back on its embassy and consulate staff in India as it has done in Pakistan. If such a step is taken, other Americans living or traveling in India would be urged to leave as well.
Fears of escalation
The primary concern is that a war could escalate into a nuclear exchange. But the United States also fears that rising tensions will undercut its campaign against terrorism by siphoning Pakistani forces away from the Afghan border, where they are trying to prevent al-Qaida and Taliban from entering Pakistan.
Rumsfeld, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said he hoped Pakistan would keep its battalions of troops along the Afghan border. Not long after, though, Pakistan confirmed that it was beginning to pull some of its troops from the border area and might shift them to the Kashmir region.
"We'd have to be more attentive inside Afghanistan if Pakistani forces were not on the opposite side of the border," Rumsfeld said.
Tensions have been building steadily in South Asia since May 14, when Kashmiri militants opened fire on a bus, killing seven passengers, and then stormed the residential quarters of a nearby Indian army camp. Twenty-four people, 19 of them women and children, were killed at the army camp. The three rebels were also killed in the ensuing gunbattle.
The hard-line Indian government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee blamed Pakistan for the attack and has threatened harsh retaliation.
Despite American protests, over the past week Pakistan has conducted three tests of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
India has increased its troop presence close to the border to 700,000; Pakistan has massed 300,000 soldiers on its side of the border amid almost daily exchanges of fire.
"I am afraid it is a very tense situation," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last night on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.
The United States and its allies have urged India to refrain from launching a military strike at Pakistan while they apply pressure on Musharraf to fulfill pledges he made in a speech Jan. 12, and repeated in recent days, to crack down on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
Powell said he was unable to say whether a war between India and Pakistan would escalate into a nuclear exchange.
Pakistan has refused to adopt a posture of not being the first to use nuclear weapons. Some analysts, noting that India has an overwhelming advantage in conventional military power, say Pakistan might feel it has no choice but to respond to a major Indian attack by firing a nuclear weapon.
"Nuclear weapons in this day and age may serve some deterrent effect, and so be it," Powell said. "But to think of using them as just another weapon in what might start out as a conventional conflict in this day and age seems to me something that no side would be contemplating."
Powell said Musharraf "understands that message," but he added, "you don't get ironclad guarantees with these kinds of issues in this dangerous a situation."
Although the danger is felt in Western capitals, the governments in New Delhi and Islamabad appear to be maneuvering for tactical advantage and trying to assuage public opinion. Because there is no direct contact between leaders of the two countries, analysts see a danger of miscalculation and misunderstanding.