"It's very dangerous," said Secretary of State Colin Powell to reporters in Moscow. "I hope both sides realize that they are at a very critical point and we'll get them to step back." Powell was referring to efforts aimed at preventing another war between India and Pakistan.
Powell followed what has become an almost daily dose of public pressure on leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad with a phone call to India's foreign minister, Jaswant Singh. Yesterday, he spoke twice with Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf. Powell also spoke three times yesterday with Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.
When Powell himself is not beating the drum in public, it's his spokesman back in Washington. "We continue to have strong concerns," said spokesman Philip Reeker at the daily press briefing, "….about the potential for conflict… and about the danger of that conflict spiraling out of control."
The two countries, which dominate South Asia, have fought three wars already in the past fifty years, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Now that both countries have demonstrated each has a nuclear capability, the Bush administration and its allies fear the next conflict between the two could become the first to see nuclear weapons used by both sides. The estimates of casualties run to many, many millions killed and wounded.
That's a worst-case scenario, but it's realistic enough to catapult South Asia to the top of the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda, right alongside Russia and the crisis between Israelis and Palestinians.
"What we want to do right now is prevent a war," said one senior State Department official earlier this week. "We're not going to defuse the tensions until they sit down and talk, directly to each other."
India wants Pakistan to stop Muslim extremists—India calls them terrorists—from infiltrating into Kashmir and launching attacks on the Indian side of the so-called line of control which separates Indian and Pakistani forces in the region.
To complicate the situation, and perhaps to cause some confusion, Pakistan has announced it is repositioning some of its troops from the Afghan border to the Kashmir area. It has also publicly announced it will conduct missile tests, not exactly seen in the region as a step which is aimed at defusing tensions.
To bring about negotiations, a steady stream of international diplomats has been making its way to the sub-continent. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca was in Islamabad and New Delhi last week, the European Union's Chris Patten is there this week. British Foreign Secretary Straw is due in the region next week and he'll be followed by Powell's top aide, Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage. The U.N.'s Kofi Annan has also been in touch with leaders in the region.
The question for American diplomats is how much pressure to put on Musharraf. The Pakistani leader has been a big help in President Bush's war on terrorism, and has taken some steps to crack down on the Muslim extremists inside Pakistan. But Musharraf is walking on thin ice politically and can only do so much, as diplomats in Washington seem to understand.
"This was never going to be an overnight process. (Musharraf) does have a domestic constituency and he's got to manage that," said the senior State Department official. That may be ok in Washington, but New Delhi isn't buying it. India wants Pakistan to act decisively against those it sees as terrorists and doesn't quite understand why Mr. Bush's war on terrorism doesn't apply when it comes to Indians killed in Kashmir.
So the diplomatic road show will continue for a couple of weeks, at least. By then, it may be necessary for Powell himself to go to the region and deliver the world's message in decidedly non-diplomatic language: Cool it!!
By Charles M. Wolfson