Put yourself in the shoes of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf as he glances back and forth at his troubled nation's borders. To the west, at the urging of the United States, his troops struggle to head off Taliban warriors and Al Qaeda terrorists fleeing Afghanistan. To the east, Indian troops rattle sabers. Between borders, home-grown fundamentalists plot.
So how is he supposed to react when India ominously sends a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon arcing across the blue sky from an island in the Bay of Bengal?
India and Pakistan already have fought three wars in half a century and came close to another in 1999. In the last seven weeks they have massed nearly 1 million troops on their borders, poised again for combat. Both nations have nuclear weapons. The last thing anyone needed was India's test-firing a missile with a range of 400 miles.
India had every right to be outraged at the Dec. 13 attack on its Parliament building that killed 14 people including the five terrorist raiders. But not at Pakistan's president. When New Delhi blamed two Pakistan-based organizations, Musharraf banned those groups and three others and arrested hundreds of members. He also delivered a courageous speech meant for the ears of Indians and Americans as well as his own countrymen, declaring that Pakistan "will not allow its territory to be used for any terrorist activity anywhere in the world." The arrests and the speech were a good match of deeds and words.
India said it welcomed the developments, but it did not reciprocate as it should have. Pulling back even a few thousand troops would have shown that New Delhi recognized Musharraf's boldness in trying to reverse nearly a quarter-century of increasing Islamic extremism in Pakistan, much of it encouraged by previous governments.
India does have a concern that Pakistan does not: elections. Musharraf is an army general who seized power in a coup two years ago. India is a democracy, balancing constituencies that include hard-line anti-Pakistan groups and moderate organizations. Coming elections in several Indian states may induce the government to keep the pressure on Pakistan in a bid to pick up votes. But national security and regional security should dictate India's response, not politics.
The one key area where Musharraf may merit India's wrath is his dealings with the disputed territory of Kashmir. For years Pakistan has helped guerrillas cross from the part it controls into the part controlled by India. Tens of thousands of insurgents and Indian troops as well as Kashmiri militants fighting for independence have died. India is right to want a far firmer commitment from Musharraf that he will stop the flow of Pakistani guerrillas into the region.
First, though, it's India's turn. No more blustery missile tests. And a pullback of Indian troops from the border to reduce the possibility of war. If Musharraf's recent actions are any indication, he is the sort of mature pragmatist who will reciprocate. Then, someday, the two nations can discuss Kashmir.