An outsider watching Pakistan Television or the plethora of Indian channels crowding the airwaves can be excused for thinking war between the two nations is imminent. Those of us who are used to this saber-rattling have been to the brink - and beyond - before.
This is not to say that the war hysteria being fanned on both sides makes it easy to go to sleep: Terms like "limited war" and "hot pursuit" are gaining currency. And to give explosive substance to this war of words, the Indian government has announced the intention of jacking up its defense budget by 28 percent.
Not a day passes without a bellicose statement by leaders at the highest level in both capitals. The Indian defense minister has gone so far as to claim that India would win both a conventional war and a nuclear exchange. Such irresponsible statements do nothing to calm the situation. The fact those in power are even contemplating nuclear war is the stuff nightmares are made of.
One frightening problem is that most of our leaders are too unsophisticated to comprehend the chilling implications of using nuclear weapons in densely populated areas. For them, atomic bombs are just bigger conventional explosives. They have neither the technical information nor the imagination to grasp the horrors of nuclear fallout on a vast population scale.
People on both sides of the great divide talk glibly of nuclear deterrence as a viable - even desirable - doctrine, pointing to nearly half a century of cold war between the US and the Soviet Union that ended in defeat for the latter without a shot being fired. They forget there were elaborate fail-safe systems in place on both sides to prevent the accidental use of nuclear weapons. Also, vast distances separating their nations gave leaders an opportunity to abort an attack erroneously launched. India and Pakistan do not, alas, enjoy the luxury of geographic separation.
The 28 percent increase in India's defense budget works out to around $3 billion - about the size of Pakistan's entire annual military expenditure. Fortunately, General Pervez Musharaf, Pakistan's chief executive since the October coup, has said Pakistan won't try to match India's budget and will not be drawn into an arms race. Hopefully, this refreshing sanity won't dissipate by the time the new budget is presented in the next couple of months.
By any standard, the amounts being spent on armaments in South Asia are enormous. But set against the abject poverty here, they assume obscene proportions. Year after year, both India and Pakistan sink billions of dollars into defense expenditure. At the same time, both are at the very bottom of international rankings in education, nutrition, health, housing, and sanitation. Despite the obvious contradiction between widespread destitution in both countries and the vast unproductive defense expenditures, successive governments in New Delhi and Islamabad have consistently shown a lack of will to settle their differences through negotiation.
Both are so completely fixated on the disputed northern region of Kashmir that it would seem they have no other problems. Although leaders on both sides pay lip service to the well-being of the unfortunate people of the Kashmir Valley, the truth is that they only covet the land and are willing to fight to the last Kashmiri to get it. Along the way, if thousands of Indians and Pakistanis are nuked to cinders, too bad.
The mulelike rigidity on both sides makes a peaceful resolution of the problem virtually impossible. Pakistan's stand can be reduced to an unshakable resolve to talk about Kashmir, and only Kashmir. India, on the other hand, repeats the mantra of "everything but Kashmir." After the coup in Pakistan, India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has seized upon the unconstitutional nature of the present Pakistani government as an excuse to refuse negotiations. Neither side has shown any imagination or vision in handling this Gordian knot. Meanwhile, the likelihood of both sides stumbling into war increases.
Under these circumstances, both nations should welcome President Clinton's South Asia visit this week as an opportunity to break the logjam.
So far, India has refused to accept a third party playing a role on Kashmir on the grounds that problems with Pakistan must be resolved bilaterally. But as it is presently rejecting direct talks with Musharaf's military regime, it makes sense to speak to Islamabad through an intermediary.
Given the current thaw between Washington and New Delhi, as well as Pakistan's previously cordial relations with the US, Mr. Clinton is ideally placed to mediate. The US has the clout and the credibility, and Clinton has the personal charisma and the diplomatic skills required to make a breakthrough. This visit is the best chance South Asia has for peace in the foreseeable future. Even though Clinton's term of office is drawing to a close, his personal involvement in initiating a peace process will be crucial to kick-starting a dialogue.
To create a conducive atmosphere for peace, it's important both sides take some initial steps. Pakistan can use its influence with the guerrillas in Kashmir to temporarily halt their attacks, while India can stop its bellicose anti-Pakistan rhetoric and temporarily cease offensive military measures in Kashmir.
While such minor initiatives may seem too much to expect from our immature leaders, it is time they realized far more than their frail egos is involved.
It's time, in short, to get real. This fleeting opportunity must not be wasted.
Indeed, public sentiment has been whipped up to such an extent in both countries that it is difficult to discuss a rational solution all three parties can live with. It's clear none of them will get what they want - but then that's what negotiations are about. The Indians will not get all of Kashmir, nor will Pakistan - short of an all-out war in which one side emerges the undisputed victor. But in a nuclear war, there can be no winners. The Kashmiris will not gain complete freedom as most of them seem to want, though in an ideal world that would be the best solution.
If all three parties grasp the fact that in the real world, you make compromises and gain part of what you want, then we can start talking about solving this problem once and for all. But above all, they have to realize that posturing is no substitute for realistic, hardheaded policies.
*Irfan Husain is president of the Textile University of Pakistan.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society