Telephone exhortations from President Bush and a personal visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair may have pushed India and Pakistan a few inches back from the brink of war. But to reach a point where anyone can breath easy, the two sides have to take the initiative themselves. Pakistan has already made steps to meet Indian demands that it rein in terrorists. Now it's up to India to respond, either with a troop pullback or by agreeing to negotiations or, better yet, both.
The neighboring nations have fought three wars since both became independent in 1947. Kashmir, the disputed territory occupied by both countries, sparked two of those wars and again is the issue, after last month's terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi that killed 14 people.
India blamed the attack on two groups based in Pakistan that seek independence for Indian-held Kashmir or annexation to Pakistan. The government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf arrested the leaders of those organizations and hundreds of their members, but India said the arrests were not enough to warrant peace talks. The Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, missed a chance during a summit of South Asian leaders last weekend in Nepal to have substantive talks with Musharraf, settling instead for what Vajpayee termed a brief "courtesy call."
Vajpayee's brushoff ignores the tough domestic situation confronting Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Pakistan was one of only three governments that recognized the Taliban, the fundamentalist Afghan regime that had support among sectors of Pakistan's intelligence agency, army and public.
After Sept. 11, Musharraf shook up the army and intelligence corps and moved to reduce the influence of Islamic extremists. But he must move carefully. The murder last month of the brother of the Pakistani official in charge of cracking down on extremists demonstrated the danger faced by Musharraf and his supporters.
President Bush has telephoned Vajpayee and Musharraf to urge restraint, and Blair made a similar plea in his visits to New Delhi and Islamabad Sunday and Monday. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell indicated last week that he might send an envoy to the region. He should. A high-level delegation would emphasize the importance that Washington attaches to peace between these nuclear-armed South Asia neighbors.
Lal Krishna Advani, India's home minister, is due in Washington today. Bush administration officials should remind him that although both India and Pakistan insist they do not want to go to war, the longer their troops are massed at the border, with missiles armed and combat aircraft on alert, the greater the danger of a misread signal or an error that will lead to all-out conflict.