Once again, India and Pakistan are drifting toward war. New Delhi and Islamabad could, however, convert the present crisis into an opportunity to work toward a genuine peace.

In days as dark as these it may not be easy to feel optimistic, but there are factors that give rise to hope that the two long warring neighbors may see for themselves — or be forced to see by others — the need for restraint and not move headlong into a bloody war.

It is certain that the United States and the rest of the world will intervene the moment the first battle cry is sounded. With both India and Pakistan now armed with nuclear bombs, Washington will surely step in to stop a catastrophe that could have deadly ramifications for humanity.

U.S. President George W. Bush will have to decide whether his “help” would be confined to crisis management or extended to the search for a long-term solution to the Kashmir problem.

Given America’s new political stakes in the subcontinent, Bush and his team — who are not eager to get bogged down in directing peace processes — could adopt a new strategy in place of their present method of managing a crisis then forgetting about it until it arises again. Such an approach is a waste of diplomatic energy. Instead Bush should strive to bring about a lasting peace.

New Delhi, despite its outwardly professed aversion to third-country mediation, is keen on getting Washington to pressure Islamabad to halt its proxy war and cross-border terrorist activities in Kashmir. New Delhi expects Washington to play “uncle” here, believing that the U.S. might be the key to a lock that has refused to open since 1947, when India’s British colonial masters divided the country into two nations and then withdrew.

One hopes that the border confrontation between Indian and Pakistani troops will lead not to shots being fired but to a historic opportunity to end the animosity and hatred between the two neighbors.

India has modified its stand on Kashmir. For years, it refused to hold negotiations on the divided state thinking that the problem would somehow disappear. But lately New Delhi has been conveying the impression that it is willing to hold talks on Kashmir with Islamabad.

The fact that this has not come about until now is Pakistan’s fault as Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been unable to halt cross-border terrorism.

Another potential agent of peace has been the growing realization in Kashmir that Islamabad will fight to the last man there. The recent brutal murder of Abdul Gani Khan, a moderate Kashmir leader who had sought to walk away from separatist politics — he said that the Kashmiri state could survive under India’s control and that independence was not essential — reflects New Delhi’s assertion that Islamabad is not a genuine friend of Kashmir.

Finally, thanks to the Sept. 11 tragedy in the U.S., global powers have now begun to see extremist violence as a terrifying weapon whose reach is not impeded by borders or boundaries. Terrorism in Kashmir will, they fear, affect people and places elsewhere.

Obviously, America, which has been trying to eliminate the al-Qaeda network, has been under intense pressure to rein in Pakistani militants wrecking havoc in Kashmir and other parts of India. New Delhi’s threat to go to war has forced Washington to act. It is now imperative to get Musharraf to crack down on militants. He may have the desire to do this but not the strength or ability. Washington must help him.

New Delhi understands Musharraf’s dilemma, but there are many hawks in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who would be elated to see Pakistan disintegrate. It is for moderate Indian leaders to put a check on this sentiment and to get on with diplomacy. It is time to both talk to Pakistan and to Kashmiri leaders.

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