Seeking to Avoid South Asia War

Airlifting Americans from someone else's war is something the United States always hopes to avoid, but it has happened before: in Liberia, in 1996; Lebanon, in 1983; and Vietnam in 1975.

The Pentagon says reports it was making plans to airlift more than 60,000 Americans in India and Pakistan are premature, and such an operation may not even be necessary as Americans leave the region on their own, following advice issued by the State Department last week.

In addition, there is still a feeling that the worst-case scenario may be avoided. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, are preparing to visit the region in a last-ditch attempt to convince both the Pakistanis and Indians that going to war over Kashmir is just not worth the risk, not when nuclear weapons are thrown into the mix.

It is assumed that both Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf understand that risk, and have no desire to go nuclear over Kashmir.

Trying to Convince Pakistan

Former U.S. ambassador Karl Inderfurth, who in the Clinton administration tried to talk Pakistan out of developing nuclear weapons in exchange for military and financial aid, said the consequences of a nuclear exchange would extend beyond the borders of the two nations.

"The consequences of a nuclear war have now been studied by the Pentagon," he said. "Their conclusion was that in a full-scale exchange between these countries, 12 million people would die almost instantly."

In addition to that, he said, radiation would drift across Bangladesh and Southeast Asia and across the oceans.

"So this is not something that, even though it's far a faraway conflict, we could escape the consequences of," he said.

Inderfurth said Rumsfeld must make clear to Musharraf that it is in Pakistan's interest to avoid a nuclear war at all costs, and that "the U.S. wants to be a long-term partner with Pakistan, and that would mean dealing with Pakistan's other problems, including its economy, including the fact that it has a failed economic system, a failed educational system."

A Complex Dance

Pakistan has come under more criticism from the United States than India has, in part because it has supported groups that use terror to oppose Indian rule over Kashmir. President Bush has made clear what he thinks about that.

"[Musharraf] must stop the incursions across the Line of Control," said Bush. "He must do so. He said he would do so. We and others are making it clear to him that he must live up to his word."

The dance between the United States and Musharraf is a complex one. His decision after Sept. 11 to end support of the Taliban and back the U.S. war on terror was critical to the early American success in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the United States has counted on Pakistani forces to apprehend al Qaeda forces seeking refuge.

Musharraf, for his part, is in a tricky position himself, even with what he says in public to his own people. In a speech last week, he said in English that his government was doing its part to control extremists. But then, in switching to Urdu — the national language — he said Pakistan would struggle for Kashmir.

This reflects two things: Musharraf's own belief that Kashmir is rightfully a part of Pakistan, and that radical Muslims in his nation may move against him if he even flinches in this face-off with India.

"These infiltrators were carefully nurtured by a variety of Pakistani regimes and Gen. Musharraf did little or nothing prior to Sept. 11th to curb their activities," said University of Texas at Austin Prof. Sumit Ganguly. "He must now be willing to pay a price for his earlier decisions."

Something in the Air?

That leaves the U.S. with the task of finding a face-saving way out for Musharraf that the Indians can accept, and does not in any way appear to give in to terrorism.

What might help right now is, quite literally, the climate.

Monsoon season, when neither sides would like to fight a war, is about to begin. If the two sides can be kept talking for a few more weeks, until the rains start, it might give everyone an excuse to back away from the brink.