LONDON — Eleven years of killing, over 50,000 dead, and the highest ratio of soldiers to civilians in the world, with a nuclear war between India and Pakistan as the payoff if things get out of hand: The conflict in Kashmir dwarfs every other global confrontation in its potential for harm. But the prospects for peace are actually rising in Kashmir.

As the clock ticks down on India’s unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir, first due to expire at the end of Ramadan on Dec. 27, and now extended to Jan. 26, there have been no clear public responses from either Pakistan or the major guerrilla groups in Kashmir. But there has been no flat rejection of the Indian initiative either, and the local situation has remained sufficiently calm that India may well extend the ceasefire. That could be a new beginning for the whole region, and nowhere needs it more.

Not only have Pakistan and India fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir in the past, they almost ended up at war again in the summer of 1999 over Pakistani troops that had infiltrated the Kargil district the previous spring.

Hundreds of soldiers on both sides were killed in firefights, and artillery and air power were lavishly used. All this happened after both countries had carried out nuclear-weapons tests in 1998. It could happen again as soon as the snow melts next spring — and the problem with both sides’ nuclear weapons is that they have no safety catches.

Analysts on the subcontinent and elsewhere prattle on about a nuclear “balance of terror” between India and Pakistan, but they are talking through their hats. The old Cold War “balance of terror” between East and West only came into existence after the mid-60s, when both sides had built thousands of nuclear weapons that were invulnerable to surprise attack because they were buried deep in missile silos or hidden away at sea in submarines.

That stabilized the confrontation somewhat, because it was no longer possible to disarm your adversary with a surprise first strike that eliminated all his nuclear weapons. Every nuclear attack would be met with a nuclear counterattack: “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD. But this period was preceded in the Cold War by a far more dangerous decade when surprise nuclear attacks might have succeeded — and that is the technological era that Pakistan and India are living through now.

Perhaps in 10 years’ time India and Pakistan will have buried their nuclear missiles in silos or sent them out to sea too. Now, however, their few dozen nuclear warheads are just sitting out in the open, slung under the wings of aircraft at the end of runways, or screwed to the top of relatively short-range missiles at military bases not far from the border. A disarming surprise attack could work, and the warning time available is only 15-20 minutes.

So both countries have “launch on warning” policies, even though they know radar operators can make mistakes. Some dozens of nuclear warheads exploding over airfields and military bases across northern India and Pakistan (plus, almost certainly, over New Delhi and Islamabad) would not be literally the end of the world, but tens of millions would die.

It is a lethally dangerous way to live, and the ever-present possibility of a shooting war over Kashmir makes it even more risky. Maybe that is why there is at last some movement on the Kashmir issue.

The need to step back from this hair-trigger confrontation was part of the reason for the three-month ceasefire declared last August by the biggest of the Kashmiri guerrilla outfits, Hezb ul-Mujaheddin. It collapsed after only two weeks, but it would never have happened at all without some encouragement from Pakistan (which arms and supplies the guerrillas, though it officially denies it).

The Indian government’s ceasefire this month has held considerably better, and major concessions are being discussed behind the scenes. New Delhi no longer demands that all the Kashmiri groups pledge allegiance to the Indian Constitution before starting to talk. Pakistan is signaling that it no longer insists on being included in the talks from the start, though there must be some understanding that it will be brought in before the end.

“If we’re genuinely interested in peace, we’ve got to engage,” says Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference that unites all the proindependence parties in Kashmir. “We have to put the past behind us.” And as long as everybody keeps the final destination sufficiently vague, it may be possible for all the parties to stop the killing and start talking.

“Talks”‘ doesn’t mean a final solution to the Kashmir question, which dates back to the decision of the state’s Hindu ruler to opt for India at partition in 1947 despite its majority Muslim population. It certainly doesn’t mean the referendum on Kashmir’s future that Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised and the United Nations endorsed 50 years ago.

It just means talks, and maybe more autonomy for Kashmir — plus an end to the killing, the withdrawal of a few hundred thousand Indian troops and police from Kashmir’s towns and villages, and a long step away from the brink of a regional nuclear war. Enough for the moment.

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