The last time a high-level American official went to India and Pakistan which was just last month it was to head off a threatening conflagration between the two nuclear rivals.
Now, as Secretary of State Colin Powell leaves for talks in India Saturday and in Pakistan on Monday, the objective is less flashy. But it's potentially more fruitful in terms of long-term stability in the volatile region.
Mr. Powell's task is to get each side thinking less about how best to afflict the other and less about the religious extremists on each side and more about measures to build trust. "There's a recognition that the ad hoc, fire-brigade approach to the conflict can't hold," says a Pakistani diplomat in Washington.
But with tensions still high after last month's pullback from the brink, just how far Powell will be able to venture beyond the mutual distrusts of the crisis remains a question mark. In addition, both countries appear to be manipulating the US focus on terrorism to its advantage.
"I don't know how likely it is Powell can reach any breakthroughs now. But it is extremely important he try to take this beyond crisis management," says Karl Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of State for South Asia in the Clinton administration. Noting that tensions are rising again with renewed violence in India-controlled Kashmir, Mr. Inderfurth adds, "We cannot disregard the ever-present danger that this conflict could slip into a war" of global implications.
Powell has said publicly he wants his trip to demonstrate that the US sees its relations with India and Pakistan in more than just security terms. Saying the US is "working hard" to resolve the current hostilities, he told a Washington radio station last week, "I also want to talk about the broader US agenda ... we have more important issues to work on with them than just the current crisis."
But Powell, who follows Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's mission to the region in June, will find two countries warily eyeing the other's relationship with the global superpower. "Each side distrusts the US's relationship with the other," says Radha Kumar, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
India says Pakistan has repeatedly failed to follow through on commitments to halt cross-border violence by Islamic extremists in India's Muslim-majority Kashmir state. India also believes that the US is too ready to play down those failures as long as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cooperates with the US in the war on terrorism.
"India sees the US tied to Pakistan now because of the fight with terrorism, and fears the US is turning a blind eye to its failings," says Ms. Kumar.
For their part, the Pakistanis would like the US to press the Indian government to accept a dialogue on Kashmir, the scene of an Islamic insurgency for more than a decade. The Musharraf government fears the US is slipping toward accepting the Indians' characterization of their situation: a democracy acting in self-defense before a terrorist threat.
Israel's similar characterization of its own situation has already made an impact with the Bush administration. "We see President Bush attentive to that context," says the Pakistani diplomat. "But everybody has to realize Pakistan is not the Palestinian Authority, and the Kashmiri freedom movement is not Al Qaeda."
Despite these challenges, Inderfurth says the US now has the best relations it has ever had with both countries simultaneously. "Powell is going with a strong hand to begin finding a way out of the impasse."
All roads to resolution start with Mr. Musharraf making good on his commitment to halting cross-border infiltrations and violence, observers agree. That eventually would open the way to India accepting a return to dialogue on Kashmir's future.
In the meantime, a halt to violence would encourage a de-escalation of the military standoff that still has 1 million troops assembled on the border. Powell could also encourage confidence-building measures like greater intelligence-sharing, perhaps initially through international law-enforcement organizations.
Powell is also expected to express US reservations over India's plan to purchase a missile-defense system from Israel. The Arrow Weapon System that Israel hopes to sell was developed with US assistance, and any sale requires US approval. While some Pentagon officials support the sale, the State Department fears the impact of new weapons systems could set off another arms race in the region.
Still, the Bush administration does plan to approve US arms sales to both India and Pakistan as part of its improved relations with both countries.
On a basic level, part of Powell's task will be to nudge India and Pakistan toward addressing each other again. "Both sides need to recognize the current stalemate poses a threat not just for the region's stability," Inderfurth says, "but to Pakistan's future, and India's aspirations to be a world leader."