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An Opportunity in S. Asia

October 31, 2002

When India and Pakistan -- neighbors that have fought three wars -- massed a million troops along their border last winter, U.S. and European diplomats quickly urged restraint. Now both of the nuclear-armed countries have announced plans to withdraw many soldiers. The troop pullbacks can provide an opportunity for continuing diplomacy in a calmer atmosphere.

The main issue is Kashmir, the beautiful Himalayan territory that both countries claim. Indian-held Kashmir conducted state elections in September and this month, with a turnout of slightly more than 40%. That figure may not sound very high, but it took great courage to defy terrorists threatening voters and candidates. Pro-Pakistani militants killed scores of people in an attempt to scare Kashmiris away from the ballot box. It didn't work.

Although the balloting did not produce a clear winner, it did oust incompetent state rulers who were pawns of India's federal government. When a new state government is formed Saturday, India should discuss providing more economic help, possibly more autonomy and less brutal treatment of residents by Indian security forces. The elections have not stopped daily firefights between militants and security forces, but meaningful talks with Kashmiris about plans to improve their lives could rob terrorists of support.

Pakistan's elections produced a much less welcome result. Islamic parties, which never did well in more than half a century of independence, formed an alliance and managed big gains this time. The coalition won control of two of four provinces and more seats in Parliament than any other party. The victories were due in part to dislike of the United States for ousting the Taliban in next-door Afghanistan. But they were due in greater part to a vacuum caused by the military government's rules curbing secular political parties that were the most prominent critics of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Indian-held Kashmir has confronted a Pakistan-backed insurgency for more than a decade. Pakistan has aided terrorists crossing into Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in largely Hindu India. After attacks in Kashmir and New Delhi last year, India began its troop buildup along the border and Pakistan responded in kind. Washington and its allies pressured Pakistan to stop the infiltration and should keep up the pressure.

India says it won't talk with Pakistan until that country keeps its promise to stop terrorist infiltration. If Pakistan complies, India must stop imposing new preconditions for talks.

U.S., British and European Union diplomats should keep calling for resumption of high-level talks and remind Pakistan that if infiltration does not stop, India may well send its troops back to the border.

Even with the international problems posed by Iraq and North Korea, South Asia with its nuclear menace remains one of the world's most dangerous regions, a place where the parties in conflict need help.

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