The horrific terror attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai last week left up to 200 people dead. Countless more ordinary people’s lives will be lost if the tensions in the region escalate into war between India and Pakistan.
Yet that terrible prospect cannot be ruled out. India and Pakistan have been to war four times since 1947, the most recent clash taking place in 1999. This is despite a wide desire for peace among the people of both countries.
But this time any conflict between the two powers will be framed by US imperialism and the “war on terror” in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan has already spilled over the border into Pakistan. Now it threatens the entire region.
India has responded to the Mumbai attacks by pointing the finger of blame at the Pakistani state.
There is some evidence that the gunmen who carried out the massacre came from Pakistan and were affiliated to radical Islamist groups there.
But so far there has been no evidence of direct Pakistani government involvement.
Pakistan’s rulers are caught between US demands to scale up the Afghanistan conflict and widespread popular opposition to the “war on terror”.
The country’s military and security establishment is also split between hardline Islamists and pro-US forces.
Both are suspicious of the country’s new civilian government, elected earlier this year after popular protests brought down military dictator Pervez Musharraf.
Meanwhile the Indian government is talking up plans for new security and “anti-terror” laws that are likely to target the country’s Muslim population.
India has also used the Mumbai massacre to ramp up pressure against Pakistan.
It has demanded that Pakistan extradite some key figures associated with Islamist attacks in India.
These include Dawood Ibrahim, a notorious Mumbai gangster who is now based in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, and Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba, an Islamist guerrilla organisation that wants the disputed state of Kashmir to join Pakistan.
The Indian demands are unlikely to be fulfilled, and the Indian government knows this. The Pakistani government is not powerful enough to move against Ibrahim or Saeed even if it wanted to.
Meanwhile Pakistan has responded to the Indian government’s sabre-rattling by threatening to move its troops currently engaged in fighting pro-Taliban forces on the Afghan border over to the border with India.
Any such move would be a military boost for the Taliban and other forces fighting against the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. But it would also heighten the pressures currently threatening to tear the fragile Pakistani state apart.
The US government is now being dragged into this maelstrom. It wants to cement military alliances with both India and Pakistan, and would rather not have to deal with a conflict between the two.
But its primary objective is to stabilise the occupation of Afghanistan. It has been pressing the Pakistani government to crack down on the Islamists in the country and to give US forces the green light to bomb pro-Taliban outposts inside Pakistan’s borders.
Barack Obama, the US president elect, has already pledged to increase the US military effort in Afghanistan. Earlier this week he carefully dodged a question over whether he would support Indian military attacks on “terrorist targets” in Pakistan.
It is clear that instability in the region has ratcheted up significantly. The Mumbai massacre threatens to spark a deadly sequence of events that will see the “war on terror” spreading further across South Asia, aided by the Indian and Pakistani governments.
None of the world’s leaders seem willing to consider what factors could have motivated the terror attacks in Mumbai – the most likely being the longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan over the state of Kashmir.
What is certain is that any escalation of war in the region will increase the grievances that led to the carnage in Mumbai and make further terror attacks more likely.
In these circumstances the anti-war movement has a crucial role to play.
We must demand an end to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan and the wider “war on terror” – before the conflict threatens to spiral yet further out of control.