THE United States Congress faces an increasingly tough dilemma in deciding whether or not to renew a substantial six-year package of military and economic aid to Pakistan. Creative solutions are required. Although a staunch US ally in the Afghanistan war, Pakistan has been sending out what Congress sees as mixed signals regarding its nuclear capability and intentions. Washington rightly wants a more convincing assurance from Pakistan that it is not producing nuclear weapons.
US law bars aid to any country acquiring equipment to produce uranium in a form that could be used in a bomb, unless the country submits its facilities to international inspection. An exception has been made for Pakistan over the last five years; the White House has had to certify that it had ``reliable assurances'' from Islamabad that nuclear weapons would not be acquired or developed.
Pakistan's waiver expires Sept. 30. Congress has new - and legitimate - qualms about renewing it.
The arrest last month in Philadelphia of a Pakistani-born Canadian on charges of trying to illegally export to Pakistan a special steel alloy used in making nuclear weapons has added to the suspicion. Similar instances have preceded it.
Despite the urging of US Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost in a two-day visit to Islamabad this week, Pakistan's foreign minister has rebuffed demands to allow international inspection of his nation's nuclear facilities.
Pakistan has long insisted that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful. It denies any involvement in the export plot and has issued a warrant for the arrest of the Lahore businessman who reportedly masterminded it.
But US intelligence reports indicate that Pakistan has a well-organized system for getting weapons production material and that some Pakistani uranium has been enriched above the 90 percent level required for the bomb. Several members of Congress insist they feel betrayed by Pakistan and think sending more aid would make a mockery of Washington's clear nonproliferation policy.
Yet an abrupt cutoff of aid could spur the very result Washington hopes to prevent: a more open and intense regional arms race in the subcontinent. India detonated a bomb in 1974 but insists its nuclear operations since then have been peaceful. Pakistan as yet has tested no bomb; it if does, Congress would face a clear instance of a ``smoking gun.''
By tying renewal of aid to certain safeguards, Congress could stand by its nuclear principles and still maintain some leverage with the Pakistanis. If Pakistan is serious about its protestations, it should allow a one-time international inspection or intelligence monitoring of its secret facility at Kahuta. Pakistan should issue clear new rules for procurement activities and make a stronger effort to crack down on private supply networks of nuclear components in Europe and the US. For its part the US should show clearly what parts of its own varied nuclear technology it is most determined to protect. The US should continue to urge both India and Pakistan to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Pakistan clearly needs to work harder with the US Congress to rebuild its nuclear credibility. If it wants US aid, it must be more candid about the direction and content of its program.