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Published: Saturday, 4/16/2005

The Kashmir bus

INDIA S and Pakistan s respective approaches to the issue of Kashmir are of automatic concern to all the world. The reopening of a two-way bus route between their parts of the disputed territory, after a decades-long hiatus, is a positive symbol of the evolving nature of the relationship.

The United States is watching India-Pakistan contacts very closely as it broadens its relationship with both. Pending now are new sales of U.S. military aircraft that would enhance the war-fighting capacity of both. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice devoted a substantial portion of a briefing for editors at the State Department last Monday to India and Pakistan.

The bus route opening went relatively smoothly. Someone blew up a building on the Indian side of the line of control between the two parts of Kashmir in advance of the launch. No passengers were killed, but two other people were killed and six wounded. The buses completed their trips, with 49 courageous passengers aboard.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is scheduled to visit India later this month to attend a cricket match in New Delhi. His agreement to do so is also considered a good sign.

But the basic problem hasn t changed much yet and the question is whether the improvements in atmospherics will eventually lead to substantive progress toward resolving the problem between the two South Asian giants.

Both nations have nuclear weapons. Neither has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that provides for international inspections and oversight of nuclear programs. Indian military forces are estimated to number 1.3 million; Pakistan s, 620,000. The two countries have fought three wars over Kashmir since independence in 1947.

Ms. Rice s concept is that, in spite of their nuclear capacity and likely U.S. sales of warplanes to both, the growing U.S. defense relationship with the countries is leading to greater security and a lower probability of war in South Asia.

She says that the war on terrorism has put both nations on the same side against extremism, heretofore unprecedented circumstances. The United States, she says, has de-hyphenated the India-Pakistan relationship.

That proposition that the United States is improving prospects for peace by selling hot weapons to both sides in an old, bitter conflict is questionable at best. All the United States needs is for India and Pakistan to go after each other with their new planes armed with their old nuclear weapons.

U.S. policy in South Asia needs continuing careful oversight by eyes other than the Bush Administration s. It may have placed blinders on itself, in policy terms, through its desire to sell planes.

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