Washington — American relations with Pakistan are still in rocky waters after top-level discussions in Islamabad last weekend. In the balance are US aid to Pakistan, support for the Afghan guerrillas, and nuclear proliferation in South Asia. US Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost traveled to Islamabad in hope of resolving a dispute over Pakistan's nuclear program. The United States is seeking concrete assurances that Pakistan is not building a nuclear weapon. However, Mr. Armacost's discussions with Pakistan's president and other leaders made little headway, according to sources familiar with the visit.
More talks are planned. The administration hopes to find a solution acceptable to Congress before US aid to Pakistan is cut off, possibly as early as Sept. 30.
A well-placed US expert on South Asia argues that creative solutions and flexibility are required. He says that traditional US nonproliferation assumptions must be reassessed. In particular, he says, Washington must reexamine the argument that US credibility among other nations with nuclear aspirations will be undermined if it does not punish Pakistan for apparent violations of US laws aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear arms.
Of the countries with the possible capability to build a nuclear weapon, only India will be affected by US policy toward Pakistan, this expert says. He adds that if Washington precipitates a break in relations with Islamabad, it could push both India and Pakistan to arm themselves with nuclear weapons.
The expert adds that a cutoff of US aid to Pakistan would also endanger the massive support which flows through Pakistan to the Afghan rebels.
US officials say the biggest disappointment of the Armacost visit was Pakistan's refusal to accept international or bilateral safeguards and inspection at its nuclear enrichment facility in Kahuta, the only facility where Pakistan can produce nuclear-weapons grade uranium.
US sources say Pakistan's President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq faces heavy domestic pressures on this issue because of popular support for the nuclear program and fear of neighboring India, which may already have a nuclear bomb. ``If Zia has to choose between our aid and the nuclear program, he'll reject our aid,'' one official concludes.
US officials say there are possible intermediate steps, such as periodic visits to the plant or types of technical verification, which could provide the US with a needed level of assurance that Pakistan is not building a nuclear weapon without being an affront to Pakistani pride. This will be the subject of ongoing discussions, sources add.
The current troubles began in July when two Pakistanis were charged with attempting to illegally acquire US materials for nuclear weapons development.
If Pakistan's government is formally judged to be behind this attempt, the President would have to cut off US assistance under US law. In addition, unless congressional ire over the latest export attempt is assuaged, all aid will be cut off automatically Sept. 30 under another US law, and the administration's proposed $4.02 billion aid package for the strategic country may not be approved.
During his visit, Mr. Armacost sought to win Pakistan's cooperation in the investigation of the most recent export case and a commitment to institute tighter control over Pakistan's nuclear program, sources say. US officials also hoped that Pakistan would accept international inspections of its nuclear facilities, particularly Kahuta.
The Pakistanis agreed to cooperate in the investigation of the export case. However, they denied any official involvement in the affair and complained about the ``sting'' operation that led to the charges, sources say.
On inspections, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shahabzada Yaqub Khan said, ``We reject suggestions that Pakistan accept any unilateral restraints on its nuclear program.''
US officials say Pakistan's leaders told Armacost that Pakistani public opinion would not accept restrictions on the nuclear program unless India also accepts such limits.
Armacost visited India before his stop in Pakistan and found little interest there in regional nuclear arms control limits, officials add. ``India sees itself as a potential big power and wants to preserve all the options of a big power,'' a US official says.
Administration sources argue that the US must promote nuclear nonproliferation, but that it also needs to consider broader US interests.
The Soviets still have over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Faced with a strong US-Pakistan relationship and an increasingly effective resistance based in Pakistan, Moscow has shown some flexibility in recent months. This is not the time to endanger US-Pakistani ties or the flow of aid to the Afghan guerrillas, officials say. They add that with Iran violently anti-US and India still nonaligned and very friendly with Moscow, a break with Pakistan is far from being in US interests.
One knowledgeable US official concludes that the best way to achieve US nonproliferation goals is to maintain the leverage Washington has with Islamabad while encouraging a modus vivendi between India and Pakistan. Only by building mutual trust between these two regional rivals, he argues, can we hope to achieve our goals in South Asia.
The trick for the administration will be to get enough concessions from Pakistan on the nuclear issue to persuade Congress that this strategy is valid. Even such an administration friend as Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana says, ``Pakistan is going to have to convince people that they had nothing to do with [the illegal export attempt].''
Congress is in recess until early September. The administration hopes to have a proposal to present to the lawmakers when they return. No one is predicting an easy task.