WASHINGTON – The State Department on Friday advised American diplomats to leave India voluntarily one day after President Bush announced he is sending Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to India and Pakistan next week to calm escalating tensions between the two states over the ongoing conflict in Kashmir.
"We are making it very clear to both Pakistan and India that war will not serve their interests," Bush said Thursday after a Cabinet meeting in which he was flanked by Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell already ordered his deputy Richard Armitage to the region.
"We are part of an international coalition applying pressure to both parties," Bush said.
The United States depends on India and Pakistan to help fight the war on terror, and the White House is concerned that those same terrorists the U.S. is pursuing could turn the bilateral fight into a nuclear conflagration that could kill millions in the region.
Administration officials are particularly concerned about Pakistani Islamic extremists pushing up hostilities that could lead to war. India is demanding that militants stop penetrating Indian territory to commit terrorist acts.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has said that he will do more to stop terrorists originating from Pakistani territories. Bush said he expects Musharraf to "live up to his word."
Rumsfeld's trip will be connected with a scheduled NATO meeting and stops to other nations. At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Rumsfeld said that he wants to meet with officials from both sides to weigh how far apart they are.
"My instinct on this subject is to simply recognize that the two countries are clearly in a situation where they are not talking directly to each other, and they have substantial disagreements, particularly with respect to the [line of control] in the Kashmir area," he said.
At the briefing, Rumsfeld said the U.S. government had no plan at present to remove American troops and citizens from the two nations. The State Department warned, however, that Powell could order a voluntary departure for diplomats and dependents that would involve them leaving India on commercial airplanes or chartered planes at U.S. government expense.
On Friday, that order came.
"Tensions have risen to serious levels" and conflict between India and Pakistan cannot be ruled out, the State Department said.
"Conditions along India's border with Pakistan and in the state of Jammu and Kashmir have deteriorated," the State Department said in its travel warning.
About 60,000 U.S. citizens live in India, and hundreds of U.S. embassy staff and their dependents are based in New Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai.
Pakistan and India have been at war three times over the status of Kashmir, a mostly Muslim region that was ceded to India after Britain split up that part of its empire in 1947.
Since Pakistan has never foresworn the first use of nuclear weapons, and Musharraf has said his country is "ready to face any challenge," the latest conflict, which began two weeks ago when suspected Islamic militants attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir, killing more than 30 people, has experts concerned that the smaller nation may resort to the nuclear option to ward off India's conventional forces.
"There is a danger that as tensions escalate the leaders could find themselves in a situation in which irresponsible elements can spark a conflict," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Pakistan, knowing it would lose even a nuclear engagement, might gamble on a demonstration nuclear strike, perhaps on an unpopulated area to try to warn India off.
Even that would create a "a huge risk of confusion and misunderstanding" and probably cause India to fire nuclear weapons, Cordesman said.
But some analysts, like British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, say "war is not inevitable." He met with leaders from both India and Pakistan this week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.