Old hatreds die hard, especially when the cause of the hate is deeply rooted in religion. That is why the latest easing of tensions between long-time rivals India and Pakistan cannot be viewed as anything more than a window of opportunity for the world community, led by the United States, to mediate a permanent peace.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who spent three days last week on a mission to urge the nuclear-armed enemies to end their monthlong standoff, said he was "very encouraged" by what he heard from Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Powell believes the two countries are pulling back from the brink of war.
But the Bush administration must know that given the developments of the last several weeks, highlighted by the Dec. 13 attack by Pakistani Islamists on India's Parliament in New Delhi, an all-out war could be a misspoken word away. And with both countries capable of launching nuclear weapons, such a war would have global implications.
Even Musharraf's conciliatory language during Powell's visit contained an undercurrent of danger.
"I am confident that ... there won't be a war. We don't want war," the president of Pakistan said. "But if war is imposed on us, we are ready to ... fight with all our might."
Terrorists: The rhetoric from India is just as charged, with the Vajpayee government making it clear that no meaningful dialogue about such thorny issues as the future of Kashmir is possible until its neighbor to the north hands over the terrorists responsible for the attack on India's Parliament, which claimed 14 lives, and other bloody assaults on the subcontinent.
From the outset, the Musharraf government has demanded evidence showing that Pakistan-based Islamic militant groups and Pakistan's spy agency were behind the attacks. During his three-day visit, Powell revealed that India had delivered more evidence about 20 men believed to be living in Pakistan who are accused of terrorism in India, which wants them handed over for prosecution. Musharraf has said he won't turn over Pakistanis.
Given the Bush doctrine on terrorism -- global terrorists and their sponsors will have nowhere to hide in this world -- the United States should let Pakistan know that so long as it harbors the terrorists India has demanded, it risks alienation by the world community.
President Bush, who has established a close relationship with Pakistani President Musharraf since the United States launched its war on terrorism in Afghanistan, should make it clear that his administration is willing to play the role of honest broker in not only breaking the impasse over the terrorists, but in helping Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan forge a new relationship.