Pakistan-US ties face Afghan test. End to Afghan war could revive prickly bilateral issues

Pakistanis are increasingly wondering whether close links with the United States, forged by the Afghanistan war, will survive in times of peace. Many analysts predict that the complex web of ties spun since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan will loosen and begin to unravel with the growing likelihood of a Soviet pullout.

``Pakistan and American relations have been propped up by Afghanistan,'' says Mushahid Hussain, an Islamabad commentator and frequent critic of Pakistan's government. In Mr. Hussain's eyes, ``It is not an enduring relationship.''

Foreign observers and Pakistani analysts expect an Afghan settlement to give impetus to South Asia's shifting order, and trigger new superpower jockeying on the subcontinent.

A source of concern here is the possibility that the US might reduce military aid, which rose dramatically in response to the perceived Soviet threat. Such a move would lower tensions between the US and Pakistan's arch rival, India, foreign observers say.

At the same time, Pakistani analysts add, it could clear the way for better ties to Moscow.

``Pakistan can't afford to be isolated in a region where Iran, China, and India all are enjoying better relations with the Soviets,'' says Shaziae Pirzada, a Soviet specialist at Islamabad's Institute of Strategic Studies.

But officials worry that US concerns about Pakistan's nuclear program, overshadowed by the Afghan conflict, will resurface. Likewise, anti-US fervor, which has been dampened by mutual opposition to the Soviets, could revive.

Pakistanis appear to feel increasingly caught in the superpowers' diplomatic crossfire.

``There is the feeling of why should we pay for the sins of the Soviets and the ambitions of the Americans,'' says Hussain. The country shelters more than 3 million Afghan refugees and is the conduit for foreign aid to Afghan guerrillas fighting the Soviet-backed Kabul regime.

Still, there are pressures for maintaining strong US-Pakistan ties. The recent approval of a $4.2 billion aid package, despite controversy and budget constraints, shows the South Asian nation has more friends in the US Congress than some thought, observers here say.

In addition, American officials appear to recognize Pakistan's significance as a friendly force in a hostile Muslim world.

``There is a growing appreciation in Washington that Pakistan has an importance that doesn't have anything to do with Afghanistan,'' says a senior diplomat in the Pakistani capital. ``They are close friends in a region where the United States doesn't have a lot of friends.''

US officials have glowingly endorsed the country's tentative moves toward democracy by Pakistan's President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in recent years. But many critics say the general, who took power in a 1977 coup, would not have survived as long as he has without American backing.

But it is not only the country's powerful military that will continue to favor sophisticated Western military equipment and ties. Many civilians are proud of the military aid which they feel has given Pakistan a measure of parity with India. Like emblems of national pride, pictures of US F-16 fighter aircraft adorn the sides of trucks and buses throughout the country.

``We may not always like the Americans,'' says one businessman, ``but with their help we've made the Indians nervous.''

But mention of the US still brings fire to the eyes of militant Muslims. There are fears that, in the negotiations over a new government in Afghanistan, the US will push for more moderate forces over Islamic leaders. Some Pakistanis suspect the US will agree to a Soviet pullout and end aid to the Afghan guerrillas to further East-West relations, leaving Pakistan and Afghanistan to suffer from the resulting chaos.

``The Americans supported the Islamic Afghan resistance because they had to,'' says Raja Aziz, an analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad. ``But America does not want to see an Islamic Afghanistan. They want to deprive the Afghans of the fruits of the struggle.''

Friction over Pakistan's nuclear ambitions also could flare once Afghanistan is settled. Despite growing evidence that Pakistan is using stolen Western technology to build a nuclear weapons program, the US Congress has repeatedly set aside its worries to endorse new aid.

But if the war ends, so could American patience.

Indian officials, who charge that Pakistan is developing nuclear weapons, say the US will show its true colors on nuclear proliferation and arming Pakistan when the Afghanistan war ends.

``The United States will have more influence on Pakistan than before,'' says an Indian diplomat. ``Continuing economic aid to Pakistan is not the problem. The problem is the military aid, and especially the type of military aid.'' However, India itself exploded a nuclear device in 1974 and is suspected of already having a weapons development program in place.

US officials are still peeved by India's refusal to join United Nations' condemnations of the Soviet role in Afghanistan. But in recent years, Washington has tried to counter Moscow's role as ally and arms supplier to India. The US is now boosting Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's modernization plans by supplying Western technology, including military knowhow.

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