President Bush says that with the passing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a new opportunity presents itself for the Middle East peace process and that he intends to pursue it as he prepares for his second term in office. He should also recognize that another opportunity to advance a peace process is unfolding - between India and Pakistan in South Asia. It is one that the administration should actively support.
The president will have an opportunity to signal that support when he meets with Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, at the end of this week at the White House.
The latest evidence that this process is moving forward was last week's meeting in New Delhi of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Shaukat Aziz. It was the first visit by a Pakistani prime minister to India in 13 years. Both officials are considered more technocrats than politicians - Mr. Singh is a highly regarded academic economist and Mr. Aziz is a successful former Citibank official. Both have served as finance ministers. So it is not surprising that the two spent a considerable amount of time discussing such cooperative measures as starting banking relations, establishing a regional "high economic council" to encourage trade, and constructing a pipeline to import natural gas to India through Pakistan. The pipeline would provide Pakistan sizable transit fees and offer India badly needed energy - a "win-win" for both countries. Before departing New Delhi last Wednesday, Aziz also met with India's commerce and petroleum ministers and took part in a meeting of business associations.
This economic focus is encouraging. As The Economist, in August, put it: "The fact that such even-tempered and practical people are in charge should bring a more profound recognition of the huge benefits, in the form of trade and investment, that could accrue to both countries if their relations were conditioned more by economics and less by the destructive politics of Kashmir."
The meeting of the two prime ministers builds on the foundation laid more than a year ago when India extended a "hand of friendship" to Pakistan.
Pakistan responded by proposing a cease-fire along the Line of Control, which separates the two countries' forces in Kashmir. India accepted and the guns remain silent. India recently pulled a small number of troops out of Kashmir, the first such cutback since an anti-Indian insurgency began there in 1989. For its part, Pakistan's pledge not to allow Islamic militants to use its territory as a base to mount attacks inside Indian-controlled Kashmir appears to be holding.
With further talks between Indian and Pakistani officials scheduled, what role should the US play?
An independent task force, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society, commended the Bush administration during its first term for "swinging into action [in 2001 and 2002] whenever some egregious terrorist act threatened to spark a wider India-Pakistan conflict," but added that "this has been short-term crisis management, not part of any longer-term effort or strategy to help India and Pakistan manage their tensions, reduce the chances of nuclear war, and progress toward a modus vivendi."
The task force recommended - as did a more recent panel of experts convened by the Asia Foundation for its report "America's Role in Asia" - that the US should adopt a "more active and more forward leaning" approach in support of the peace process that is currently under way.
A first step in this regard, as recommended by the task force, would be for the administration to establish a special working group among those dealing with South Asian affairs in Washington. Its purpose would be to better track developments and discussions between New Delhi and Islamabad - and in Kashmir itself - and to provide ideas and guidance to US officials in India and Pakistan, and senior visitors to the region, on how progress can best be achieved.
The Bush administration's foreign policy agenda will be very full as the president begins his second term. Iraq and other hot spots, plus the Middle East peace process, will surely dominate. But this should not overshadow the promising opportunity for peace that presents itself today in South Asia.
As India and Pakistan seize that opportunity, the US should be standing with them.
• Karl F. Inderfurth was assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001 and is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He was a member of both the Asia Foundation's working group that produced the report 'America's Role in Asia,' and the task force on India and South Asia, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society.