Secretary of State Colin Powell will try to lend further impetus to the emerging peace process between India and Pakistan.
It is Mr. Powell's first trip to the region since the middle of 2002. And he'll find a markedly different and better political landscape than the last visit, when India and Pakistan were locked in a dangerous confrontation over Kashmir.
Since that time, with U.S. mediation help, the two South Asian powers have backed away from the brink of war and are embarked on what they term a "road map" to peace that includes a six-month timetable for discussing a range of issues including Kashmir.
The rivalry between the two South Asian powers has not diminished to the point where it is off the agenda for the Powell mission.
But the trip at least it will not be a crisis management exercise, and Mr. Powell can focus on bilateral matters as well, and in the case of India a rapidly improving relationship underlined by an agreement in January on high-technology exchanges.
The United States has agreed for the first time to help India with nuclear and space technology in return for its commitment to use the American know-how for peaceful purposes and to curb the spread of dangerous weapons technology.
At a House subcommittee hearing last week, Mr. Powell said the United States has a "new relationship" with India that is powerful and growing. "We recognize India as a major democratic nation that has a major role to play in the region and the world. And, increasingly, we are able to talk to the Indians in terms of U.S.-India, U.S.-India and not always in the background do we see these other issues dealing with Pakistan and other problems in that part the world," he said. "And I want to enhance that bilateral relationship, and through a strengthened bilateral relationship we can also have an impact on the situation in the region."
In a taped message to an Indian policy seminar Friday, Mr. Powell hailed the "farsighted" steps taken by the governments of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf toward resolution of their disputes. He said the United States will remain a "steadfast friend and supporter of the peacemakers" on both sides and will continue to build strong relations with each country in its own right.
Mr. Powell has been in frequent telephone contact with Mr. Musharraf about the revelations since late January of the proliferation activity of Pakistani nuclear program chief Abdul Qadeer Khan. But his mid-week's visit to Islamabad will allow for their first direct talk on the network that provided nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya, and perhaps others.
In the congressional testimony, Mr. Powell expressed understanding for Mr. Musharraf's decision to pardon Mr. Khan, considered the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear deterrent, but stressed it is contingent on his cooperation in uprooting the proliferation ring:
"We are now learning more and more. He [Khan] is fully cooperating with Pakistani authorities, who are providing us information," said Mr. Powell. "President Musharraf determined that at this point, the best outcome for Pakistan and to make sure this network truly was dug up and removed, root and branch, was to provide a conditional amnesty to Dr. Khan. A conditional amnesty that can be reversed if President Musharraf believes cooperation is inadequate, or he believes another set of actions are appropriate."
On his stop in Afghanistan, Mr. Powell is expected to meet President Hamid Karzai and discuss plans for elections there later this year, as well as development assistance and the drive by U.S.-led forces against Taleban and al-Qaida forces in the southeastern part of the country. Mr. Powell attends a conference on Afghan reconstruction in Berlin at the end of this month.