A conventional war between India and Pakistan would not have been a disaster. It would certainly have resulted in heavy casualties, but probably no higher than in 1948 during the immediate aftermath of independence and partition. India and Pakistan recovered from those atrocities; they could also have recovered from a second instalment, as they did from their previous wars. Equally, it is unfortunate that the Kashmir question was not resolved during one of those earlier Indo-Pakistani conflicts. A military victory reinforced by ethnic cleansing would have solved the problem. Without such a drastic modification of the facts on the ground, there is no solution.
But conventional war is no longer an option. If war did break out, it would almost certainly end in a nuclear exchange, with terminal damage to the great civilisation of north-west India. That cultural holocaust would be a tragedy for all mankind, for all time.
If such a tragedy is averted, it will be a tribute to two unfashionable concepts: the special relationship and mutually assured destruction. Over the past couple of weeks, Washington and London have worked as a team with six principal players: George Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, David Manning in No 10 and Jack Straw. They have virtually organised a duty roster, taking it in turns to make the phone calls to the sub continent, pressing, persuading, pleading.
It is vital that the Americans should be involved, because the Indians, in particular, are subject to mood swings – understandable, perhaps, if one is dancing on the slippery edge of a molten volcanic crater. But the Brits have to be careful. At moments, productive and apparently rational conversation have lurched into unreason, with the Indians accusing the British of behaving like colonial overlords. This is an absurd charge to make against Tony Blair, who can be accused of many things, but not of nostalgia for the Raj. In Delhi, however, to use a favourite phrase of George Younger's which now has a hideous aptness, they are in danger of becoming overcooked. The Americans play a vital part in turning down the heat.
So does the central British diplomat in the region: the High Commissioner in Delhi, Sir Robert Young. Calm, patient, wry, sardonic and persistent, Sir Robert is the perfect man for the moment and much admired in Washington. Under his tutelage, even some Americans who harbour long-term distrust of our Foreign Office over its attitude to Israel have come to reassess the merits of a career foreign service.
Sir Robert and Mr Straw displayed perfect timing last week when they advised British subjects to flee the subcontinent. The despairing tones of the Foreign Secretary's comments and his apparent acceptance of the inevitability of a nuclear exchange hit absolutely the right note. It was as if he had touched the Indians' hearts with an icicle. He had complained that he could not persuade them to take the prospect of nuclear war sufficiently seriously; suddenly they were. Let us hope that the effect is lasting.
The task of maintaining it falls to Donald Rumsfeld this week. Mr Rumsfeld is not an eirenic character; his motto is less "blessed are the peacemakers" than "I come not to send peace but with a sword". Yet this may also be the right note. Mr Rumsfeld is blunt and plain spoken; hardly inappropriate language in which to describe the dangers of mass incineration.
The Russians are also playing an important role. They have been using their long-standing links with Delhi to reinforce the Bush-Blair line. Washington, London, Moscow all in harmony; this is Mr Bush's new diplomacy in action.
But if it works, it will be due to the successful imposition of an old world-view. Messrs Bush, Blair and Putin have one simple message for India and Pakistan: welcome to the Cold War. Now that they are nuclear powers, they can no longer risk hot wars because they can no longer control the heat. So if they have a disputed frontier, there is only one answer: try something that worked well in Europe for 45 years. India and Pakistan need an Iron Curtain. Above all, they need to understand the terrors of mutually assured destruction. They ought to go to their office windows, look out over their great cities – and then imagine them as blasted ruins inhabited by a few radioactive beggars.
These points have all been made, and Mr Rumsfeld will repeat them, forcefully. But the dangers persist on Kashmir, both sides are convinced of the justice of their causes. The Indians cite the inviolability of frontiers, while the Pakistanis employ the language of Woodrow Wilson in extolling the merits of self-determination.
When it comes to the horrors of war, both sides also seem to suffer from a failure of imagination – and that is especially true of some Indian generals. It is often alleged that generals tend to fight the last war. That appears to be the case among the Indian general staff. Men who often sound as if they are nostalgic for the Raj and who still employ the vocabulary of the Victorian nursery, they will say that it is time to give the Pakistanis another good spanking. They have not grasped the folly of trying to inflict corporal punishment upon a nuclear power.
So everything hangs in the balance. A week ago in Washington, the consensus seemed to be that the odds were tipping in favour of war. Over the next few days, the position deteriorated, as was reflected in Mr Straw's statement. Then, partly because of that statement, matters improved. Now, the assessments vary from hour to hour.
It could be that the longer the situation persists, the more the two sides will settle down. We might now be in the Berlin airlift phase of the early Cold War; the passage of time will bring stability. It could also be argued that the longer all this goes on, the greater the danger of an accident; that we are not dealing with Berlin in the late Forties, but with Europe in 1914, and that the exigencies of mobilisation will lead inexorably to war.
India is a marvellous, fascinating and infuriating country which has had innumerable flirtations with chaos over the past 54 years but has never quite succumbed. It should now be on its way to securing its rightful place in world affairs as not only a great nation but a great economy and a great power. Pakistan is further down the evolutionary chain but General Musharraf is its best hope of decent government since the early Fifties.
Ezra Pound described the Europe crippled by the First World War as an "old bitch gone in the teeth". Within a few weeks, India and Pakistan could be in a far worse mess than that. America and Britain have done everything possible in the cause of peace. It is now up to the Indians and Pakistanis. It would be heartbreaking if their peoples' hopes disappeared in a mushroom cloud.Reuse content