As the world's attention is transfixed on bombing Saddam, the risk is growing that South Asia's undeclared nuclear powers, Pakistan and India, will conduct a new round of nuclear tests and missile deployments following the current elections in India.
South Asia's politicians are likely to move closer to an open endorsement of regional "weaponization" if right-wing Hindu nationalists garner enough voter support to form the next Indian government.
The potential ramifications for South Asia's economies and people are significant. In per capita income, both Pakistan (at $450 per year) and India (at $380) are among the poorest nations in the world. Literacy rates are dismally low - less than 50 percent. Malnutrition and disease are widespread. Yet both countries continue to spend more than 25 percent of their annual budgets - some $10 billion to $12 billion combined - on building their war machines. Reducing military expenditures by just 10 percent, for example, would fund the construction and operation of tens of thousands of rural schools.
Complicating this situation is the elusiveness of peace in Kashmir. The disputed Himalayan enclave has been the flash point for military and nuclear tensions since Pakistan and India formally separated from Britain and each other in 1947. Islamabad and New Delhi already have fought two wars over Kashmir, in 1947 and again in 1965.
But the potential for a new South Asian crisis resides not in the possibility of Kashmir flaring up again or in the rhetorical barbs that might fly between Hindu nationalists and radical Islamists. It lies in each country's nuclear command structure. Indian nuclear policy resides in the hands of its political leaders. Pakistan's Army chief controls that country's policy.
A right-leaning Indian government, buoyed by nationalistic fervor, might authorize thermonuclear tests in India's Pokharan desert or deploy Prithvi missiles aimed at Pakistan. These moves could be seen as a way of demonstrating India's regional virility and its global identity as an independent, powerful state no longer subject to the whims of the world's superpowers.
Such action on India's part would almost inevitably be met with an immediate and equal response from Islamabad. Pakistan could deploy Chinese-made M-11 missiles or conduct a nuclear test of its own. It's no coincidence that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited China last week for wide-ranging talks.
But instead of opting for a militaristic identity, a right-leaning India could just as easily provide the framework needed for peace and economic revitalization. With proper moderation, nationalist hard-liners might finally construct a peace with Pakistan over disputed Kashmir - a peace that could be sold domestically without fear of appearing to compromise national pride, unity, or security interests.
The task of moderating the nuclear aspirations of India's Hindu nationalists could - and should - fall on America's superpowerful shoulders. Washington has for some time unwittingly engaged in a form of "nuclear apartheid" in South Asia, economically and militarily sanctioning Pakistan's nuclear ambitions while increasing investment in India tenfold.
While New Delhi has adamantly refused US mediation on Kashmir, the United Nations, backed by Washington, should be resolute in pressuring India to resolve the world's longest-standing border dispute - and the only one with nuclear overtones. If in Iraq and Bosnia, why not in Kashmir?
The opportunity for creating a lasting peace there may never be better. Pakistan, for the first time since the 1965 war, has a political leader in Mr. Sharif whose will for peace is bolstered by an unassailable parliamentary majority. His political roots emanate from Punjab, the most populous Pakistani province and the one most directly affected by the issues of war and peace in adjoining Kashmir.
Just as Hindu nationalists could sell peace as not compromising Indian national interests, so could Sharif sell peace to Pakistanis as no compromise of their national interest. Resolving Kashmir also could pave the way for a meaningful restructuring of military-industrial complexes in both Pakistan and India, thereby reducing an intolerable burden on national resources.
The world can only hope that nationalists in both countries will understand that the construction of more bombs will never adequately ensure the security of their nations.
Certainly, economic revitalization, made possible by peace with its neighbors, should be the first order of business for India's new government.
* Mansoor Ijaz, an MIT-trained nuclear physicist of Pakistani origin, is chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York. His father was a founding contributor to Pakistan's nuclear program.