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India and Pakistan have reached a ceasefire in their two-month fight over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Well, not exactly a ceasefire. Instead, the two militaries have negotiated a “disengagement”: Islamic guerrillas who crossed into Indian territory have reportedly agreed — at Islamabad’s urging — to withdraw from their positions. To facilitate the pullout, India has suspended airstrikes. Indian officials deny this is a ceasefire. Rather, they say that they are “behaving,” matching the enemy’s good behavior.

This semantic hairsplitting may seem like conventional diplomatic rhetoric, but that view obscures the powerful forces at work in Kashmir. Things are not as they seem in the territory. The standoff there has festered for decades, but that does not mean that the status quo is sustainable. Disengagement provides a breathing space; the two governments must use it to build a framework for real peace in the region.

There is plenty of room for dispute. For starters, there is no border. Instead, India and Pakistan observe a “Line of Control,” agreed to in 1972 after their second war over the province. The uneasy peace that has been in effect since then has been anything but peaceful. The two sides have regularly exchanged artillery fire, testing each other’s forces and ensuring that the territorial dispute simmers. Then there are those Islamic guerrillas. Islamabad claims the Mujahedeen are independent fighters, but most observers argue — and Pakistani officials have conceded off the record — that the Pakistani government supports and has considerable influence over them.

Finally, there is the agreement reached last weekend by the two militaries. It calls for a complete pullout by the guerrillas by July 16. The denial that this is a real “ceasefire” is confirmed by the artillery exchanges that have taken place since Sunday. Withdrawal or not, it is an ominous signal, suggesting that both sides are more concerned with scoring points than making peace.

Of course, saving face is a critical element of diplomacy. Pakistan’s claim that it “appealed” to the fighters to withdraw allows it to maintain the fiction of their independence. India’s refusal to accept “a ceasefire” — which suggests equivalence in terms of culpability — permits it to argue that it has been wronged. But the positions also underscore the importance of the nationalist forces at work in the dispute. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cannot be seen to disavow the Islamic fighters who command such respect in his country. India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is constrained by Hindu nationalists, who will not tolerate any concessions on Kashmir.

It is hard to see where there is room for compromise. Since the two countries carried out tit-for-tat nuclear tests last May, the competition between New Delhi and Islamabad seems to have intensified. There were predictions that, sobered by their new nuclear capabilities, the two governments would practice a new restraint in their diplomacy. There was a brief moment of hope when the two prime ministers met in Lahore earlier this year, but that evaporated after missile tests and when the fighting erupted in Kashmir.

The stakes could not be higher. In a moment of brutal honesty — and terrifying clarity — during a nationally televised speech Monday night, Mr. Sharif conceded that the pullout was made to save the two countries from nuclear war. He was right, but the key question now is what comes next.

A renewed commitment to a diplomatic settlement should follow. Unfortunately, the incursion has badly damaged trust between the two governments. There is widespread belief in India that the attack was being planned while the two prime ministers held their much-acclaimed Lahore meeting. The guerrillas’ initial success weakened the Indian military’s credibility and will make any compromise harder to reach. Mr. Sharif claims that U.S. President Bill Clinton promised to take a “personal interest” in efforts to settle the dispute, but a U.S. spokesman denied that meant that Washington would mediate. And since India maintains that this is a bilateral dispute, it is unlikely to allow a third party, whether the U.S. or the United Nations, into the discussions.

In short, nothing has been accomplished and much has been destroyed by this gambit. World attention has been focused on Kashmir, but that does not mean that the thorny issue is any closer to resolution. Perhaps now the two governments will realize that the risk of miscalculation is real, however. That is probably not enough to inspire them to work seriously toward peace in Kashmir, but it is a lesson worth learning.

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