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INDIA AND PAKISTAN

There is never a good time or a good place for two nuclear powers to lob accusations and artillery shells at one another, but the timing of the latest escalation of tensions between Pakistan and India is especially unfortunate.

Both should heed President Bush's call to "stand down," at least while the war against terrorists rages in nearby Afghanistan.

This is not the time for an old American ally and a vital new one to resume pounding each other in their long-standing clash over Kashmir, although it is a good time for America to begin paying attention to that border clash. The United States should exert as much diplomatic force as it needs to persuade India to stop shelling Pakistani military posts. If India persists, the coalition of countries supporting the Afghanistan campaign could fragment.

Everyone would lose if that happens, including a Pakistani government that has abandoned its support of the Taliban to side with the United States and an India long threatened by terrorism based in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's assurances to Indian and Pakistani leaders alike that the United States may help resolve the dispute over Kashmir could help cool current tensions, which flared on Oct. 1 when terrorists linked to the Pakistan-based Jaish-i-Muhammad group killed 38 people during an attack on the state legislature in Srinigar, the summer capital of Kashmir.

It must be particularly galling for India, which was an early supporter of the American campaign in Afghanistan, to watch its old enemy Pakistan welcomed as an important American ally against terrorism.

In that light, India's shelling of Pakistani outposts along the "line of control" between the regions of Kashmir controlled by India and Pakistan is both a protest of the Srinigar attack and a message to the United States that its new friendship with Pakistan should include pressure on its president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to end support for militants seeking to oust India from Kashmir.

Both Powell and Bush have responded to that call, pressuring both sides to end the current flare-up and promoting future negotiations to find a stable solution to the border disputes.

Pakistan is positioned both geographically and psychologically to play a major role in the Afghanistan campaign, and although it stands to gain internationally from its decision to drop support for the Taliban, Musharraf's move still risks increased domestic unrest.

America already has rewarded financially strapped Pakistan by restructuring its $379 million bilateral debt, while Congress has passed legislation lifting all remaining economic sanctions against the country.

But India cannot be forgotten either, and the Kashmiri question will require careful balancing in a region where power and influence still are shifting.

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