ISLAMABAD — U.S. President Bill Clinton will travel to Pakistan on March 25, on the last leg of his South Asian journey, which began last Sunday. But the few hours he plans to spend in Islamabad may represent more than just a passing phase in Washington’s new diplomacy in South Asia.

If Clinton succeeds in convincing both India and Pakistan to rein in their recently intensified activity along the temporary border in the disputed state of Kashmir known as the Line of Control, he will have taken an important step toward promoting peace in a volatile region.

In the two years since India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices in May 1998, world attention regarding South Asia has been focused on encouraging nuclear restraint on the part of both antagonists.

The nuclear race is very different from the conventional arms race. In 1990, for example, Washington’s decision to slap punitive sanctions on Pakistan was able to help restrain one of the two sides reliant on U.S. weaponry. While India and Pakistan may have depended on foreign technology in the past to build up their nuclear programs, they are both now virtually independent. Just in the past week, the images of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile sites that have appeared on the Web site www.fas.org have been sufficient to convince skeptics that Islamabad’s nuclear program — and its ability to deliver nuclear weapons — cannot be underestimated.

Since the May 1998 nuclear tests, the two countries have come close to war on at least one occasion, most notably, when Pakistani-backed fighters last year crossed into Indian-controlled areas in Kashmir and occupied strategically important mountain heights near the town of Kargil. Weeks of pressure on Islamabad eventually forced the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to use its influence in withdrawing those fighters, but long-term prospects for peace took a serious hit.

In fact, the so-called “bus diplomacy” of last year, named after the journey of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who traveled by bus from India to Pakistan, now seems like an event from distant history. The symbolism attached to Vajpayee’s journey — of India and Pakistan opening a new avenue to peace — has been overcome by an escalation of the war of words and a hardening of positions on both sides.

Against this background, Clinton faces a daunting task, especially given the limits of U.S. leverage vis-a-vis both India and Pakistan. While India is keen to promote business ties with the U.S., it is unlikely to back down in the dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan. India’s economy is large enough to carry on even without the major impetus that economic ties with the U.S. would provide.

By contrast, U.S. leverage on Pakistan has been limited by its suspension of aid to Islamabad. In fact, Pakistan’s successful expansion of its nuclear capability has, to some extent, been driven by the U.S. aid cutoff, which seriously jeopardized Islamabad’s conventional capability.

Despite these limiting factors, Clinton has three promising options:

First, encouraging Pakistan and India to become more actively involved in regional or multilateral forums rather than direct, short-term engagements with each other. Bus diplomacy, though desirable, is now an unrealistic option. With mutual tensions running so high, there is little room for immediate reconciliation.

Second, many of the problems fueling long-term war hysteria, especially on the part of hardcore nationalists in both India and Pakistan, arise essentially from South Asian economic realities. A region that is home to one-fifth of the world’s population lives also struggles with one of the world’s higher poverty levels.

Although Pakistan’s economy is weaker than India’s, it is no secret that a large proportion of the Indian population also lives below a basic level of sustenance. While India and Pakistan have long spoken of the need to reform their economies, delays driven by uncommitted bureaucracies and inconsistent economic policies have often impeded progress.

Finally, the absence of democracy in Pakistan could be a major impediment to future prospects for peace. Though Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, says that he is committed to returning the country to democracy, many Pakistani politicians still feel skeptical about the future.

The problem with a nondemocratic country as opposed to a democratic one is mainly that a democracy allows the opportunity for governments to seek popular consensus. For Pakistan, any major change in its Kashmir policy, especially after a 53-year-long conflict with India on the matter, would require the backing of just such a popular consensus.

Clinton is expected to raise the issue of a return to democracy with Musharraf, but it is not clear how Washington’s push for a revival of civilian rule would be sustained after he leaves — even though Islamabad has offered to cooperate on other issues of interest to the U.S. administration.

In any case, Washington’s past support for Pakistan’s military regimes has left many Pakistanis doubtful about America’s commitment to democracy.

At the end of Clinton’s trip, there may be little to show in terms of a breakthrough for peace in South Asia. But even a modest step toward nudging the region’s historic rivals into undertaking a new engagement for peace could mark the beginning of a breakthrough. Just don’t expect results anytime soon.

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