PAKISTANI Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto won high marks Wednesday for reassurances that her nation would ``not possess, nor do we intend to make a nuclear device'' and her offers to prevent the proliferation of such weapons in the region. Her statements to Congress helped consolidate support for continued United States aid to Pakistan and were clearly directed at mitigating fears over Pakistan's long and clandestine drive to acquire nuclear weapons.
But while most in Washington tend to accept Ms. Bhutto's sincerity, US specialists remain concerned. Up until Bhutto came to power last December, there was clear evidence of an ongoing nuclear procurement and development program. The evidence abounded despite assurances to the contrary by the late Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, then Pakistan's military strong man.
If past trends were somehow to continue, US officials say, President Bush would in all likelihood be unable to certify this fall that Pakistan does not possess a nuclear weapon. Such a US move, adds a Pentagon official, would of itself spur the Indo-Pakistan arms race by heightening Indian worries.
``If something affirmative is not done to slow down the India-Pakistan arms competition, things will drift into a two-nuclear-power'' subcontinent with both countries fielding complete nuclear forces, says Leonard Spector, nuclear nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
India's nuclear arsenal
India, too, continues its apparent pursuit of a nuclear deterrent, he and others say, by developing a ballistic missile that could deliver a bomb, and by exploring techniques needed to make thermonuclear weapons.
While US law focuses on Pakistan because it receives US aid, says a senior administration official, the problem has to be viewed as part of rivalry between India and Pakistan. This has led to three wars since 1947. To add complications, India is pursuing nuclear potential largely because of worries about China's nuclear arsenal.
``This situation is so complex, you almost need a computer program to sort it out,'' complains a well-placed Senate aide. US officials say the ultimate solution has to be a lessening of tensions between Pakistan and India, already begun between Bhutto and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. That process will be helped, they add, to the degree that India's fear of China diminishes and the two nations continue reducing nuclear arsenals.
Public concern about the advanced state of both nuclear programs increased with a series of recent revelations in West Germany. The flap over West German involvement in Libya's chemical weapons plant, sparked more investigations by government prosecutors and the West German parliament into questionable nuclear commerce by West German firms.
``We've discovered in 1989, that we lost the game with Pakistan in the mid-1980s, and I expect there will be more revelations coming,'' says Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, at the University of Wisconsin.
Professor Milhollin and Spector have independently compiled over a dozen reports of alleged sensitive nuclear transfers by West German firms and individuals to Pakistan during the 1980s and several similar incidents involving India.
In addition to these reports, there are numerous cases of successful or attempted nuclear-related procurement elsewhere, including a mid-1987 incident where a Pakistani tried to illegally buy specialty steel in the US.
To help allay concerns, Bhutto told Congress Pakistan would accept ``any safeguard, inspection, and verification'' applied to other nations in the region, by which she particularly meant India. She suggested a nuclear test-ban treaty in South Asia and said Pakistan was prepared for ``any negotiation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons'' in the region.
Many in Washington were eager for the type of firm assurance Bhutto gave this week and had earlier suggested gestures like her offer to negotiate a test ban. But they will be looking for concrete moves to confirm her words. Milhollin suggests Bhutto could also offer to put some of the items acquired from West Germany under safeguards. ``We'd be much more comfortable'' if Bhutto can roll back the program, but to freeze it serves the short-term need, the senior US official says.
Prof. Stephen Cohen, who follows Pakistan at the University of Illinois, says that should be doable. Last year, General Zia told him Pakistan already had a stable nuclear deterrent based on ambiguity and that he was satisfied with the situation. Professor Cohen says there is no reason the current military hierarchy should want more. Plus, they realize they have a great deal to loose if the program causes Pakistan to end its special relationship with one of the superpowers.
Bhutto told Congress Pakistan would not provoke a ``nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.'' But while Bhutto has taken good stands, there remains a tremendous amount of popular support in Pakistan for a weapons program, if only because India has one, says the Pentagon official. And, another official adds, Bhutto may not yet fully control the powerful military-bureaucratic lobby behind the nuclear operation.
Privately, President Bush stressed to Bhutto the critical importance of avoiding a regional nuclear arms race and pledged full US support for lessening tensions with India. He also reportedly said in ``crystal terms'' that he will not break US law requiring an aid cut off, if he finds Pakistan ``possesses'' a nuclear weapon.
US concern is increased because both India and Pakistan have apparently moved beyond the simple nuclear weapon designs to work on advanced weapons systems, Spector says. They are simultaneously developing advanced delivery systems.
Milhollin says Pakistan probably has enough highly enriched uranium for a handful of nuclear weapons. In recent years, it has also taken steps that could allow it to boost the output of its weapons material fivefold, he says.
Pakistan has reportedly done this by covertly acquiring from West Germany a rare nuclear material, tritium, which allows a bigger nuclear reaction, and the technology which will allow Pakistan to manufacture its own tritium. Boosting the explosive output is essential to making smaller, and thus more deliverable weapons, Milhollin explains. It also allows weapons material to go further.
India is estimated to have enough material for 20 to 50 bombs, says Spector. It is apparently working on more advanced weapons using the H-bomb principle, nuclear fusion, he says. India has also made strides to develop a potential long-range delivery vehicle. Last month it tested a ballistic missile that may have a range as high as 1,500 miles. Pakistan is developing two short-range missiles, which have ranges similar to the Soviet-made Frog and Scud missiles, Milhollin says.
US officials tend to agree, but say unless tensions with India are reduced, the situation will remain unstable. As long as Pakistan sees India exerting its powerful influence as a dominant regional power and continuing to develop its own weapons capabilities, Pakistan will be worried, says Ralph Braibanti, president of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies at Duke University.
Administration specialists say they are optimistic because the current leadership of Pakistan and India are better placed to reduce tensions than any leaders in years and seem intent on doing so. Bhutto and Indian leader Gandhi already agreed last December not to attack each others' nuclear facilities, though they must now follow through with several steps to cement that pledge. Spector suggests the US and others encourage India and Pakistan to carry out a series of confidence building measures, such as the mutual test ban, which can help freeze the arms race in place.