"India and Pakistan Exchange Sanctions"; "Asia's Other Border Strife." A few months ago, headlines like those might not have made it into American newspapers, let alone onto the front page of the Washington Post. After all, border conflicts have marred the relationship between India and Pakistan since—well, since India and Pakistan first gained their independence. Arguments over the fate of Kashmir have twice broken into major wars, and Muslim insurgents have been fighting the Indian government in Kashmir for more than a decade, killing a staggering 75,000 people in the process.
While it isn't quite true that no one has noticed these outbreaks of violence, it is also hard to argue that this particular conflict has played a central role in world affairs. Since the Cold War ended, it has mattered even less. India is no longer semi-aligned with the Soviet Union, the United States no longer "tilts" toward Pakistan. And no wonder: India and Pakistan fight, make wary peace, and then fight again, with no discernible impact on anyone except Indians and Pakistanis. Although much ink has been spilled on the subject, even the small Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals shouldn't necessarily worry us either. If nuclear deterrence worked in Europe, why shouldn't it work in South Asia? Is either India or Pakistan more irrational, more bloody-minded, or more prepared to accept the mass murder of their own citizens than were the United States and the U.S.S.R. at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Yet we are worried, we are involved, and we do care, far more than we did in the past—but not because the conflict itself has changed or even really because it might go nuclear. In the wake of Sept. 11, I argued that the attacks would make the diplomatic world into a very different place and would create new issues that we hadn't even begun to think through. Now here is a test case, the first example of the New New World Order in action: In the past 48 hours, the Indian-Pakistani conflict has exposed almost every fuzzy, unconsidered, unclear aspect of our new foreign policy, and with alarming speed.
For one, we are suddenly prisoners of our own rhetoric. Two weeks ago, a group of suicide bombers leapt from a car and blew themselves up in front of the Indian parliament, killing 14 people. India suspects that the bombers were members of terrorist groups resident in Pakistan, and Indian officials now claim to be at war against "state-sponsored terrorism." If the United States was well within its rights to destroy terrorists who attacked Washington and New York, the Indians are well within their rights to destroy terrorists who attack New Delhi: Imagine a suicide bomb attack on the House of Commons or on the steps of the U.S. Congress. If we are not to appear hypocritical, we are obliged to sympathize with India.
At the same time, we are hijacked by our new military alliances. It just so happens that at this precise moment, the U.S. government finds itself in the unfamiliar position of dependence upon the Pakistani army, whose troops are patrolling the wild Pakistani-Afghan border regions, looking for stray members of al-Qaida, Osama Bin Laden among them. If real tensions break out along the Indian-Pakistani border, those troops will be pulled away to fight. We may be obliged to sympathize with India, but we are also quite desperate to prevent India from attacking Pakistan.
Meanwhile, we are also trapped by the very mistiness of our definitions of terrorism, and our lack of clarity about which terrorists, exactly, we oppose. Certainly, we are very much at war with the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Both of these groups, however, have been linked with the Kashmiri insurgents. Or perhaps "linked" is the wrong word, since the three groups appear to have been interchangeable. Bin Laden's Afghan camps trained Kashmiri terrorists, who in turn fought to defend the Taliban. Among them was John Walker, the American who was captured fighting with Taliban troops and who had previously fought with Pakistani groups in Kashmir. Whatever our feelings about India and Pakistan, if we are at war with al-Qaida, we should be at war with their Kashmiri allies as well.
Hence the American dilemma. We don't want to take sides—but we have reasons to take both of them. We don't want to get involved—but both India and Pakistan, for their own reasons, are dragging us in. We've never successfully mediated here before—but now we have to. We don't want to play global policeman—but there isn't anyone else who can or will. The United Nations isn't at war with al-Qaida, we are.
So far, the American reaction has been to press hard on both sides. Colin Powell has been working the phones, urging and bullying the Indians not to invade, pressuring and cajoling the Pakistanis to crack down on the terrorist groups that launched the suicide bombers. If he fails—if India and Pakistan go to war—America will pay a price. America's cause will suffer, America's war against terrorism will be diminished, America's particular battle against al-Qaida may even be lost, if Bin Laden escapes.
It's a new twist on events, if you think about it. From the start, it was clear that the impact of America's War on Terrorism would be felt in many distant places. We now know that the opposite is also true: The wars of distant places will make their impact felt in America as well.