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By Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto is the former prime minister of Pakistan and leads the largest opposition party, the People's Party.

The smell of war is in the air. Like helpless actors India and Pakistan are inexorably moving in the direction of a deadly conflict. Once again the United States and the international community are involved in firefighting a potential nuclear conflict.

Indo-Pak enmity revolves around the dispute over the area known as Jammu and Kashmir. The people of Jammu and Kashmir were promised the right to self-determination by the United Nations in an unimplemented 50-year-old agenda item. India refuses to allow the referendum, concerned that the Muslim population will secede. Pakistan backs the Kashmiri move for freedom.

The latest crisis started on May 14 when Kashmiri militants, camouflaged as Indian soldiers, mowed down with guns and grenades women and children in the disputed valley. The message was clear: If the militants could target Indian army families in their homes, the Indian soldiers at the line of control between the two countries could hardly deter them.

New Delhi accuses Islamabad of backing the militants. Islamabad denies this.

The Indian soldiers who saw their wives, daughters and sons killed are putting pressure on the Indian government, especially on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, to exact retribution through military retaliation that could easily spill into the fourth war between the South Asian neighbors.

The chance of such a war was predicted by the American CIA chief in March. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, George Tenet stated, ''If India were to conduct large-scale offensive operations into Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, Pakistan might retaliate with strikes of its own in the belief that its nuclear deterrent would limit the scope of an Indian counterattack.''

Two years back, American President Bill Clinton described South Asia as the most dangerous place in the world. And for the last six months, Indian and Pakistani soldiers stood eyeball to eyeball at the line of control. That massive buildup followed an attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi last December.

Now India has expelled Pakistan's high commissioner. The Indian prime minister called for a ''decisive fight'' against Pakistan. The drums of war are beating.

The international community has high stakes in the region.

Pakistan is now a key ally of the U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan. The last situation the United States would like to see develop is the war against terror deflected by the war between India and Pakistan.

But if the militants wanted to deflect attention from the heat of allied forces against Al Qaeda in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, they succeeded. The fight that began in Kabul last September, triggered by militants flying planes into the World Trade Center, has every possibility of turning into a fight for Srinagar triggered by militants determined to provoke an Indo-Pak clash.

The international community made a critical error when it concluded that a military dictator could defuse tension between India and Pakistan or prevent the rise of the tidal wave of extremism that is now engulfing the region.

Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharaf, the great white hope in the fight against terrorism, is sinking in a quicksand of his own making. His tenure has been marked by the rise of extremism, militancy, terrorism and regional tension. He missed the opportunity at Agra in 2000 to sign a confidence-building treaty with New Delhi. He carries the baggage of being the architect of the Kargil conflict that nearly led to an Indo-Pak war in 1999. His ''lone ranger'' politics pits him against domestic political forces polarizing the country. Given this history, it's unlikely that dialogue proposals can halt the inexorable march to war now taking place.

There is one way that war can be prevented, and that is regime change. Regime change in Islamabad offers the possibility of halting hostilities to permit a new government to make a fresh start. The voices of the international community as well as the Pakistani armed forces are critical determinants as to the calculations made. They will determine whether Musharaf resigns to defuse the crisis or clings to power in a show of nuclear brinksmanship.

In 1971, the senior officers of the Pakistan army went to then military dictator Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, forcing him to resign after Islamabad suffered a military defeat in an earlier war between the two countries. Yahya Khan's resignation paved the way for the formation of a new government. That government signed the Simla Agreement in 1972, holding peace in place until both India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices in 1998. Since then the two countries have thrice come to the brink of war. Clearly a new, post-nuclear-explosions treaty is the need of the hour.

Reports indicate that the Pakistani generals do speak up. They initially opposed the holding of the controversial referendum by which Musharaf tried electing himself Pakistan's president. They will debate a two-front war at a time when their men are stretched out both at the eastern and western borders.

The view of Pakistan's important and powerful ally, America, is pivotal, too. The White House was vocal in its support for Musharaf. President Bush called him ''my friend.'' Now it will have to choose between a man that is considered a friend and risking a limited war that could get out of hand.

New Delhi will reflect before starting a military action that lacks the support of the United States. But it enjoys far greater freedom of action than Islamabad did during the Kargil fighting. Then President Clinton could dictate to debt-laden Islamabad held hostage by the International Monetary Fund. President Bush might find it difficult to dictate to New Delhi: New Delhi's economy is largely independent.

Bush does have one weapon that can deter New Delhi. That is the threat of international mediation for the Kashmir cause. New Delhi is opposed to such intervention.

A military setback means trouble for Musharaf. Far better for him and the region that he agrees to regime change to prevent the start of armed hostilities that could trigger a nuclear nightmare.

And far better for New Delhi to accept such a regime change as face saving than allow a limited war that could spill out of control.

New Delhi should consider that Islamabad could do well in a war that is limited in area and time. Its military is well equipped. A limited war could turn into a longer and larger war in the heat of a blazing summer with soaring temperatures.

During his testimony before the Senate committee last March, the CIA director said the decision to turn Islamabad into an ally in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks ''was a fundamental political shift with inherent risks.''

Those risks are now evident as the South Asian region teeters on the brink of a violent tomorrow.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 5/23/02)