The potential for war between India and Pakistan in the coming days appears increasingly great. Tensions between the countries have been high for months. Neither country wants — or can afford — a war, but it appears that someone or some group is doing its best to start one. It will take only one match to start the fire — and neither India nor Pakistan has full control over the matchbox.

If a war occurs, it is unlikely to be confined to the disputed region of Kashmir. Sentiment among many sections of India's population has been growing in favour of decisive action, even all-out war, in response to the militancy that has been going on since well before the attack on India's Parliament last December. Now, domestic political factors, intensifying Hindu-Muslim tensions and America's treatment of India and Pakistan in relation to the 'global war on terrorism' have created conditions for full-scale conflict. New Delhi had earlier recalled its envoy to Pakistan, and now it has expelled his Pakistani counterpart to India. The troops of both countries are poised on their respective borders. The monsoon will arrive in less than two weeks. If war is to occur, it will do so before rains make the roads impassable. Villagers have left vulnerable locations on both sides of the border, hoping to be out of the way if war starts. Britain has sent Jack Straw on an urgent mission and the US is sending Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, and its Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. But why the delay?

War, if it happens, is likely to be intense and could involve the use of nuclear weapons. Pakistan is reported to have readied its nuclear arsenal during the Kargil conflict in 1999. With little strategic depth, it has strong incentives to try to use such weapons for a devastating first strike. Public sentiment in India is also disturbingly unconcerned about the prospective use of nuclear weapons. Well-educated, internationally experienced individuals — early leaders in India's environmental movement — have expressed the sentiment that it would be worth losing a few cities to 'settle' the dispute with Pakistan once and for all. Others state that Pakistan's nuclear 'bluff' needs to be called; it is not something India can live with. There is little mass awareness of the effects that nuclear fallout would have across the plains of India and Pakistan, and to most members of the public, nuclear weapons are just "big bombs". India may try to confine the war to the disputed territory of Kashmir, thus avoiding actually attacking Pakistani territory and catalysing a full-scale conflict. But, even if it does so, avoiding escalation will be difficult. Furthermore, there are strong tactical reasons for any attack to occur directly across the border of Punjab or Rajasthan. Such an attack could well provoke a nuclear response from Islamabad.

India's government is facing heavy domestic pressure to attack Pakistan. The leading member of India's coalition government, the right-wing Hindu-nationalist BJP, did poorly in recent state elections. In the three months since then, Hindu- Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, the only state now that is governed exclusively by the BJP, have caused over 800, mostly Muslim, deaths and led to extensive criticism of the BJP's leadership at both the state and central levels. The BJP government at the centre needs to shore up its support.

It was apparently persuaded not to attack Pakistan in January following promises of effective action by the Musharraf government to reign in militants. But then militants killed the families of Indian servicemen at Kaluchak in Kashmir even as Christina B Rocca, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, was visiting New Delhi. Targeting the families of servicemen is like killing police — it stirs intense desire in the armed forces for direct retribution. India's government cannot afford to appear soft on Pakistan. Also, both the BJP and the opposition are upset by their perception that the US has double-standards on terrorism. Bush's focus on Al Qaeda and the Taliban cuts little ice in India, where Pakistan is seen as the safe harbour and home for such activities.

And what of Pakistan? General Pervez Musharraf is walking a tightrope. In the aftermath of the attack on the Indian Parliament, Musharraf moved against the sentiments of a significant number of his citizens and ordered the arrests of leaders of many Islamic militant organisations. Some of these, including a leader of Lashkare- Taiba, have since been released and only recently re-arrested following the attack in Kashmir in May. This, of course, adds to the perception in India that Pakistan is not serious about controlling cross-border attacks. There are other subtle symbols. Pakistani news reports in mainstream English language papers refer to the 'deaths' of Indian civilians and the 'martyrdom' of the attackers.

Is India serious about attacking Pakistan? New Delhi is reportedly considering high-profile actions it can take that stop just short of war. According to The Hindu, these include withdrawal of most favoured nation status to Pakistan, an abrogation of the Indus Waters Treaty and calling on the UN to enforce Resolution 1373, which mandates nations to control terrorism. All such actions have their own complications and are likely to be perceived as inadequate within India. The threat of war seems, as a result, very real. One can only hope that such analysis of the likelihood of hostilities is wrong.

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