TO the knotty complications that have helped make the India-Pakistan face-off over Kashmir the world's scariest crisis, the United States' war on terror has become yet one more devilish twist.
Beset with weak governments that have both tried to use the showdown over Kashmir to bolster their own domestic standing, and egged on by strident nationalists who speak in the stark terms of holy war, the two countries are now locked in a brinkmanship where the slightest misstep could produce a nuclear war.
More than just eyeball to eyeball, South Asia's bitter neighbors have also been watching the United States intently, each seeking to assess how Washington's antiterror campaign in Afghanistan affects the other. The danger, as they have done so, is that the perverse readings that each side brings to the subject can inspire the deadly miscalculation.
Since the two countries explicitly became the third world's first nuclear rivals in April 1998, when India and then Pakistan conducted test explosions, there has been much hopeful talk in the region about a new era of stability — its own version of mutually assured destruction would supposedly ensure that neither country would dare start another war.
Such thinking seems to have been misplaced to begin with because, in addition to the irresponsibility of soldiers and politicians, South Asia's instability derives from the asymmetry of its two largest nations. With a billion people, India dwarfs Pakistan in almost every measure, including troops and conventional arms. Under the circumstances, the nuclear option will always be a tempting, if illusory, survival card for Pakistani generals.
In the present crisis, India has packed its portion of the divided Kashmir region with an estimated 700,000 troops, and has spoken in ever more belligerent tones about punishing Pakistan for backing an armed insurgency there. Yet Pakistan's elite has lulled itself until the last few days with the thought that New Delhi would not dare attack because it would upset Washington's antiterror agenda.
"India's relationship with Washington has acquired a real depth, it has become strategic and not just tactical, like Pakistan's," said Mushahid Hussain, a former Pakistani information minister. "Because of that, people felt that India couldn't possibly start a war. They were taken by surprise by India's sudden raising of the temperature, and only now are we awakening from the slumber."
Islamabad's awakening since late last week has brought repeated calls for India to accept a dialogue, increasingly explicit promises not to give military aid to separatists, plus an offer to place international observers for the Kashmiri Line of Control that separates the two countries' armies.
It is worth remembering that Indian-Pakistani relations have always proceeded by crisis. Pressure mounts inexorably, most often around the zero-sum game of divided Kashmir. The countries have fought two wars over this issue and have lived through countless mini-crises. Somehow, in the end, the pressure has always dissipated before the point of catastrophe, and that could happen now too.
Nevertheless, through most of the week India continued to ratchet up the pressure, complaining that Washington was merely trying to keep a lid on things rather than force its traditional client and vital partner in the campaign against Al Qaeda to permanently sever arms supplies and training for Kashmir's Muslim separatists.
President Bush may have dreamed of a world of moral clarity after the terrorist attacks in the United States, but the crisis in South Asia, like the one in the Middle East, has shown how futile it is to expect people to abandon their own deep and bitter animosities and subscribe wholeheartedly to Washington's still rather abstract call to fight evil as America defines it.
For both India and Pakistan, instead, Sept. 11 has provided a historic opportunity to try to redefine relations with Washington. India saw President Bush's stark with-us-or-against-us language about terrorism as a chance to cast Kashmir's deep complexities in simple black and white. For India, the terror tactics of the separatists who attacked the Indian parliament in December and struck again two weeks ago, killing 35 people in Kashmir, is the only serious issue.
Lost amid India's muscular post-Sept. 11 opportunism, critics of India point out, is that many in overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir strongly resent Indian rule; that India has never allowed a free and fair vote by Kashmiris on self-determination; and that India itself has long engaged in human rights abuses to keep control of Kashmir.
Pakistan's military government, meanwhile, saw in Sept. 11 a chance to arrest the long-term deterioration in its relationship with Washington. Islamabad has repeatedly been subjected to arms embargoes by the United States, suspicion over its sponsorship of terrorism and relationships with radical Islamic causes. By making the painful decision to abandon its longtime client the Taliban, and by allowing the American military access to Pakistani territory to pursue remnants of Al Qaeda, President Pervez Musharraf was calculating that Washington would reward Pakistan on many levels, none more important than a sympathetic hearing on the Kashmir issue.
To critics of his government, Mr. Musharraf's bet looks increasingly like a replay of the wager made during the war in the 1980's against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when Pakistan became the main conduit for a huge American program of assistance to anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters. Then, too, Islamabad's help failed to win it decisive support from Washington over Kashmir.
Then as now, Pakistan's cause was hurt by its own lack of democracy and its penchant for resorting to violence to achieve its aims in Kashmir.
THAT suspicion and frustrations toward the United States are rife in both countries is not surprising, given the fact that a major realignment of Washington's diplomatic positions in the region has been under way since the end of the cold war.
"Pakistan may be the U.S. ally but India pulls more weight in Washington," wrote Hussain Haqqani, a commentator in The Nation, a Pakistani publication. "With the end of the cold war, American suspicions of a nonaligned India with close ties to the Soviet Union have dissipated. India's economic reforms have moved the country away from its quasi-socialist practices, opening a huge market of one billion potential consumers to U.S. businesses. From the U.S. point of view, Pakistan may be America's wartime ally, but it is India that offers the prospect of long-term friendship."
Published in NewYorkTimes