Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Wavering US Commitment No Inspiration for Pakistan

By David D. Newsom / July 8, 1998



Washington's best chance to deter Pakistan from proceeding with its nuclear tests probably lay in offering ironclad security guarantees. In today's national mood, however, neither Congress nor the administration would be likely to support such a guarantee. And the history of US-Pakistan relations shows how difficult it has been to sustain even a vague US commitment.

Skip to next paragraph

Pakistan has, from its beginning, feared for its security. Few in the new country believed that India had abandoned the goal of reuniting the two halves of British India. China loomed as a potential threat to the north. Afghanistan to the west had historically been an invasion route to the subcontinent.

Pakistan initially looked to the US for security assistance. But from Islamabad's perspective, the experience has been discouraging. Four times during the past 33 years, at critical moments in Pakistan's history, Washington has unilaterally suspended military help. In May of this year, after Pakistan exploded five nuclear devices, all assistance was again cut.

After the subcontinent's independence in 1947, governments in Washington and Karachi (then the capital) built a relationship that implied US concern for Pakistan's security. The US commenced a program of military sales in May 1954. Pakistan joined two Western-sponsored alliances, the South East Asia Treaty Organization and the Baghdad Pact (later the Central Treaty Organization). In 1959, these alliances were supplemented by a bilateral security agreement.

These arrangements, however, were built on illusions. The US saw Pakistan as a part of the "northern tier" encirclement of the Soviet Union. Pakistan perceived its new ties to Washington as bolstering its strength vis-a-vis India. But Washington's commitments were weak. The US itself never joined the Baghdad Pact.

When India and China fought a border war in 1962, Washington, alarmed at the prospect of Chinese advances, rushed military assistance to India, to Pakistan's dismay.

Two years later, Pakistan launched a war against India, hoping to regain disputed Kashmir. Because Washington considered Pakistan had illegally used US equipment, military supplies were embargoed. Pakistan for the first time turned to China for help; China later helped Islamabad develop its nuclear program.

In subsequent years, the embargo was eased, only to be applied again in 1971 when war with India resulted in the loss of East Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh. In 1974, the nuclear issue emerged. India exploded a "nuclear device," and US intelligence reported that Pakistan, too, was seeking materials for a program of its own.

Alarmed at the threat to nonproliferation, the US Senate in 1977 enacted the Symington-Glenn amendment requiring a halt to US assistance to any country believed to be engaged in the development of atomic weapons. In 1979, the Carter administration, faced with this mandate, once more stopped aid to Pakistan. Just one year later, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Peshawar became a staging point for the US-backed Afghan resistance, aid was resumed under a presidential waiver.

In 1985, Sen. Larry Pressler introduced an amendment specifically requiring suspension of aid to Pakistan. When the Soviets withdrew from Kabul in 1989, President George Bush once more suspended aid. In the absence of indications that Pakistan was ending its nuclear program, he had no further basis for a waiver. Twenty-eight F-16 aircraft already paid for by Pakistan were undelivered and remain so to this day.

Except when Pakistani actions directly served US interests from Washington's perspective, the objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons overrode all other considerations. From Islamabad's point of view, the application of sanctions against Pakistan was grossly unfair. Pakistan, which had served US interests, suffered most under sanctions. India, allied to the Soviet Union through much of this period, suffered less.

On-and-off-again sanctions have reduced confidence in US commitments; they have not impeded Pakistan's nuclear program. It is not too late, perhaps, to find a formula that will reassure Pakistan in the context of a regional no-first-use agreement. But, if US diplomacy is to play a role in such an arrangement, it must overcome doubts about its steadfastness.

* David D. Newsom is a former ambassador, undersecretary of state, and professor, now living in Charlottesville, Va.