CONGRESS will decide shortly what to do about the Reagan administration's proposed six-year, $4.02 billion package of economic assistance and military sales to Pakistan. Complicating an otherwise straightforward decision are congressional suspicions about the nature and true purpose of Pakistan's nuclear activities. To say time is short is an understatement; the present United States aid package expires tomorrow. The administration views the aid package as necessary for bolstering Pakistan's security against the further encroachment of Soviet influence in the region. It also stresses the substantial assistance Islamabad has provided to the Afghan resistance by allowing US aid to reach the mujahideen, which use Pakistani territory as a base of operations.
While members of Congress recognize Pakistan's strategic importance, many are disturbed over its strangely distorted nuclear program and wonder about its commitment to using the atom only for peaceful purposes. During the past decade there have been numerous indications that Pakistan has attempted to covertly position iself to make nuclear weapons. These anxieties have been reinforced in recent months by the claim of Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist that his country could produce weapons-grade uranium, and by the arrest of a Canadian businessman of Pakistani nationality for trying to illegally export from the US a steel alloy suitable for manufacturing uranium centrifuges needed to produce this uranium.
Consideration of the aid package thus confronts Congress with two divergent goals: the prevention of nuclear weapons spread versus the preservation of US strategic interests in South Asia. Opponents of the aid package assert that Washington should not undermine its global nonproliferation policy by ignoring, and in effect rewarding, Pakistan's persistent efforts to inch closer to the threshold of nuclear weaponry. They would have the US terminate all aid unless it receives reliable assurances that Pakistan is not producing weapons-grade uranium. Detailed assurances include written declarations by the Pakistani government and independent on-site inspections of its nuclear facilities.
Proponents of the aid package argue that a cutoff of US assistance would be detrimental to Washington's security interests in the region and could put pressure on Islamabad to make a final dash for nuclear weapons before the cutoff takes full effect. They maintain that US conventional weapons enhance Pakistan's security and reduce any need to depend on nuclear weapons.
In addition, United States economic assistance, which is 57 percent of the proposed aid package, contributes to internal stability by buying the regime a measure of loyalty from competing ethnic minorities. Continuation of present support for the Afghan rebels would be impossible for Pakistan without US aid.
Experience cautions that Washington cannot easily force Islamabad to abandon the nuclear base it has so carefully built. The Carter administration's threat to end minor US assistance did not alter Pakistan's pursuit of a nuclear option; neither did following through on that threat in April 1979. And even if such a coercive policy could be followed, serious questions would remain over Islamabad's faithful adherence to an agreement reached under American duress.
What can Congress do? Continuation of aid on a year-by-year basis with new hair-trigger sanctions leaves fundamental concerns unresolved. Congress might consider attaching the following five conditions to the US aid package:
No modification of US aircraft. Both countries could agree that US-supplied aircraft will not be modified to carry nuclear weapons, with this verified by annual inspections.
The limited test ban treaty. Pakistan could ratify the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which it has already signed. Although Pakistan could still test nuclear explosives underground, ratification would be an important symbol of nuclear self-restraint and would contribute to the evolving general consensus against the spread of nuclear weapons.
A nuclear-weapons-free zone in South Asia. If Pakistan and India can agree on a nuclear-weapons-free zone, the US could promise to aid either country if it was threatened by a nuclear weapons state.
A carrot for more safeguards. Washington could agree to relax pressure on other nuclear suppliers not to sell Pakistan a large nuclear power reactor if Pakistan agrees to place all the output of its uranium enrichment plant under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
Buy the enrichment. Washington is worried about what Pakistan might do with its enriched uranium while Islamabad is sensitive about its sovereignty.
A compromise solution could be if the US contracted with Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission to buy all of its enriched uranium at a generous price.
While these conditions are less dramatic than a US ultimatum that Pakistan cease all work in the nuclear field or else suffer a termination of US aid, they are likely to be more viable and effective. They would allow Washington to reconcile its interest in checking Pakistan's further nuclear development and in preserving the US strategic position in the South Asia region.
With controversy and stalemate now characterizing the debate over the aid package, something new is urgently needed.
Mitchell Reiss is the author of ``Without the Bomb: The Politics of Nuclear Nonproliferation,'' which will be published by Columbia University Press in November. Warren Donnelly is a senior specialist of the Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C. The views expressed are their own.