When India then Pakistan successfully tested nuclear devices in spring 1998, a shudder went through the international community. The two nations, created in a bloody religious partition in 1947, were in a seemingly perpetual, bitter sibling rivalry punctuated by three wars - two of them across the cannon-studded Kashmir border.
In time, concern over South Asia's nuclear capability lessened. Experts divined that New Delhi and Islamabad were quite aware of the devastation they could wreak on each other in a matter of minutes, and that they had no desire to do so.
But concerns reignited as the Dec. 13 suicide attack on the Indian Parliament - allegedly by terrorists trained and supported in Pakistan - has tensions at a new high. In recent days, India has been massing troops and arms along their 1,100-mile border in the largest such buildup in more than a decade, has cut bus and train service to Pakistan, and recalled its diplomatic envoy there. Late yesterday, India's
Cabinet was meeting to consider trade restrictions and flight bans on Pakistan. And voices in Delhi are discussing "hot pursuit" - attacks on camps across the border that train militants.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are scheduled to attend a meeting of regional leaders in Nepal next week, but Indian foreign ministry officials told the Associated Press they would not hold separate talks.
While both leaders say they do not want war, both sides seem to be taking the recent diplomatic and military moves as more than symbolic gestures. How much more is the question.
The crisis is escalating just as the US is trying to cultivate new partnerships with both Delhi and Islamabad, and it threatens to diffract, if not divert, the US war on terror in Afghanistan. US policymakers worry, for example, that the Pakistan Army - with 60,000 troops deployed on the Afghan border near Tora Bora on the lookout for Al Qaeda fighters and Osama bin Laden - could redeploy those troops elsewhere in response to India's moves.
The US has not formally accepted Delhi's claim that the suicide attack on its legislative assembly was carried out by either Lashkar- i-Tayyaba or Jaish-e-Mohammad. But on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced he had placed both of the Islamist groups on a list of terrorist organizations. In an effort to ease tensions, Mr. Powell has spoken twice with the Pakistani leader and India's foreign minister.
"We have to take this [buildup] pretty seriously, and it is critical that the tensions lessen," says one senior US State Department official, who declined to be identified. "It would be nice to say this is just all maneuvering, just a couple of squabbling kids looking over their shoulders to see how the US reacts at this sensitive time. But matters are taking a more sobering turn. We are worried about people misreading radar screens, about unintended consequences."
Pakistani officials say the Indian government is using the assault on its Parliament - in which 14 people died, including the five attackers - to tarnish the image of Pakistan and depict it as a "rogue state." They claim India is trying to thwart Pakistan's emergence as a credible state, just as that country is developing closer ties with the US by assisting with the coalition against the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda. They say India is using the Dec. 13 tragedy to blur any distinctions between "terrorists" who wantonly target civilians and "freedom fighters" supporting the anti-Indian side in the 50-year-plus Kashmir dispute.
"The Indians would like to use this period of global antiterrorism to confuse the world about the struggle in Kashmir, and to lump all resistance under the label of terrorism," says Anwar Sayed, …