Washington India and Pakistan have gone from hurling war cries at each other to taking small but steady steps toward a peace agreement on Kashmir and their other conflicts. Shrewdness on the Indian side and desperation in Pakistan have come together to produce a potential Nobel Peace Prize for two uncommon leaders.
There would be a conceptual bonus for Americans if Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf do bury the hatchet. That result would provide clues as to how terrorist wars, and wars on terrorists, finally come to an end.
Unsuccessful terror campaigns tend to consume themselves. Cutting off outside support and finance turn the bombers and killers against their one-time sponsors and then each other. Their movements split and suffocate -- if those who have resisted them know how to seize the moment to stop the conflict when it comes.
Vajpayee, the poet and Hindu nationalist who has been the turtle to Musharraf's excitable and exposed hare for the past three years, acts as if that moment may have finally come in Kashmir. The Indian leader has inched his way steadily toward an accommodation with Pakistan by alternating threatening military moves and visions of mutual economic benefits built on peace.
"There has never been such promise and support for peace in both countries as there is now," Yashwant Sinha, India's foreign minister, told me during a visit to Washington this week. "I see a groundswell of support for peace" on both sides, he added.
Sinha declined to speculate on why Pakistan has suddenly dropped many demands that in the past have blocked peace talks on Kashmir. He stuck to the positive tone that Vajpayee and Musharaf adopted in Islamabad on Jan. 5, when they agreed to pursue an agenda and timetable for formal negotiations.
Musharraf has impressed Indian officials by moving in recent weeks to rein in the interlocking network of terrorists, military and intelligence officials and nuclear scientists who have made Pakistan a center of regional instability and of global nuclear proliferation over the past two decades. New Delhi now practices something like a "trust but verify" strategy toward Musharraf that the former general has finally earned.
Outside pressure or mediation from the United States has had almost no immediate role in this embryonic engagement by the Asian subcontinent's two nuclear powers. Much as Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin did in 1977, Vajpayee and Musharraf have moved for their own reasons.
Washington's lavish support for Musharraf, given without holding him to past promises to cut off cross-border terrorism and dismantle terror camps in Kashmir, may in fact have delayed this moment. By so personalizing its economic aid and political support instead of designing it to assist Pakistan to return to democracy, the Bush administration encouraged the general to play a balancing game as long as he could.
But assassination attempts that rely on inside knowledge focus the mind in special ways. Two such attacks on Musharraf's life seem to have convinced the Pakistani leader that the most immediate threat he faces does not come from New Delhi. It comes from extremists in or near his own regime, who apparently gave terrorists the intelligence that enabled them to bomb Musharraf's convoys on Dec. 14 and 25.
These attacks make fence-sitting no longer possible, either by Musharraf or by the generals whose support he needs to survive the Islamist challenge to his rule. The monster they helped create now has its fingers on their throats.
The support that Pakistan extended to terrorist groups in Kashmir and elsewhere in Central Asia also helped give rise to al-Qaida, which still operates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier. A cataclysmic moment of truth for Pakistan in Kashmir will inevitably influence the Bush administration's war on global terror, for better or for worse.
This is another case where spinning into control is only one option. Musharraf must push forward and survive the showdown that has begun in his country. Vajpayee has to win a national election likely to come in April, and then satisfy Pakistan's legitimate aspirations in Kashmir. Bush must not let his political calendar disrupt the military campaigns he has undertaken against global terrorism.
That's a lot to get right in a region where things have gone badly wrong for years. The path leading to Oslo and Nobel laureate status for Vajpayee and Musharraf is strewn with pitfalls and land mines. But by taking the first baby steps toward peace in Kashmir, these two leaders have begun a journey that can change the world.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.