With the arrival of US Secretary of State Colin Powell for a four-day diplomatic tour, the United States is making its strongest effort yet to shore up support among frontline states in the current US-led war on terrorism.
Meeting with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf today and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee tomorrow, Mr. Powell will convey American gratitude for Pakistani and Indian support thus far, and will attempt to show them what a future Afghan government might look like as well as lay out how the US plans to avert further civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
But the toughest task may be keeping America's two key allies, Pakistan and India, from fighting each other over the troubled state they both claim, Jammu and Kashmir.
There are reasons for concern. India and Pakistan, which both have demonstrated nuclear-weapons capability, have fought two wars directly over the fate of Kashmir, including a 1999 incursion by then Pakistan Army chief Musharraf in the Kashmiri mountain pass of Kargil. Adding fuel to the fire is a 12-year-long insurgency by Kashmiri militants, many of them based in Pakistan and funded by Islamic hard-line parties, which has claimed more than 36,000 lives.
US officials privately say Mr. Powell will urge both India and Pakistan to minimize tensions and avert a "shooting war" over Kashmir, at least until the present war against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts is concluded.
With ongoing attacks between Kashmiri militant groups and Indian security forces, including a devastating suicide bomb attack last month on Kashmir's state assembly that killed 40 people, it is clear Powell faces a delicate balancing act in asking both India and Pakistan to set aside national compulsions and build support for the global drive against terrorist networks.
"Powell will advise India and Pakistan to lower tensions and bilateral feuding that could undermine the coalition to deal with Osama bin Laden," says Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the Defense and Strategic Studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "At a minimum, he would ask both sides to resume dialogue."
Past efforts at dialogue over Kashmir, most recently at a top-level summit last July in the Indian city of Agra, have largely proved fruitless.
In any event, Powell's visit shows how much America's South Asia policy has changed since Sept. 11. Before the World Trade Center attacks, the Bush administration appeared ready to continue the policy of the Clinton administration in tilting heavily toward India. In August, America lifted all sanctions against India imposed after its 1999 nuclear-weapons tests.
By contrast, America lifted only the nuclear sanctions against Pakistan, but maintained a raft of other sanctions over Pakistan's military coup, its inability to pay off mounting debt, and its reputed support for terrorist groups.
Today, the US appears ready to lift most, if not all, further sanctions against Pakistan. In addition, Bush administration officials have indicated US willingness to provide debt relief for Pakistan's $38 billion in outstanding international loans.
More than 50 percent of all Pakistan's government spending goes to interest payments on that debt, leaving little for social spending - such as drinking water, infrastructure, and building public schools to provide rural villagers with an alternative to the Koranic schools, or madrassahs, that are fertile recruiting grounds for Islamic extremist groups.
"Any explicit American commitment aimed at helping the Pakistan economy will be seen as a huge gain," says Professor Hussain. And such gains would prove a political boost to Musharraf, who desperately needs to point out benefits to his people for supporting the US-led alliance against Afghanistan.
For their part, many Indian officials worry that Pakistan's renewed prominence can only come at the cost of India's growing strategic relationship with the US. In New Delhi, mainstream national newspapers are packed with rumors of a quid pro quo between the US and Pakistan, with Musharraf vowing support for the US-led war on Afghanistan in return for American support of its supposed aims in Kashmir.
In any case, analysts say, Powell will be visiting an India whose patience with Pakistan has run out.
India claims that Pakistan provides material and military support for Islamic militants in Kashmir, and says that these militants have direct ties with both the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network run by bin Laden. Pakistan, for its part, calls these militants "indigenous freedom fighters."
"They [the Americans] have stretched the understanding and the patience of India beyond their elasticity point," says Gen. V.R. Raghavan, former Indian Army chief of staff and now director of the Delhi Policy Group, a strategic think tank in New Delhi. "The government will be pressured to demonstrate it can take action" against Kashmiri militants. "The American position is either you are with us or against us," General Raghavan adds. "The Indian government will say to the US: Either you are with us or against us over terrorism in Kashmir. It works both ways."
But if Indian patience over Kashmir has worn thin, Pakistani public opinion could also take a sharp turn against the ongoing air war against Afghanistan. With reports of heavy civilian casualties, even middle-class Pakistanis have begun to criticize America's tactics against the Taliban.
With the Taliban now leading a select group of journalists to see the devastation in villages outside Jalalabad in southeastern Afghanistan, the Pakistani public will have images to match their own suspicions that the war would inevitably affect innocent Afghans - and fellow Muslims.
Behram, an Afghan national who works for a private aid group in Jalalabad, left that city for Pakistan two days after the US air attacks began Oct 7. He says that Afghan public anger is high against America, particularly in villages struck by American bombs and missiles.
"Two villages were hit, Koram and Bangashir in the Toor Ghar district near Jalalabad," says Behram, who requested that his identity be concealed to protect himself and his aid group. These two villages once were part of a complex of former mujahideen base camps, back when Soviet troops were still in Afghanistan, but they have been dormant for years, he says. "I have visited Toor Ghar four or five times in the past few weeks, and I have not seen any Arabs there."
"The Arabs used to live in Jalalabad; they used to go walking, shopping, go to military bases, but they are changing their camps from time to time," says Behram. "I think the US depends on intelligence services. If this intelligence is good, there won't be civilian killings. But if the intelligence is old, there will definitely be killings."