IT was natural that this week's meetings between President Bush and Pakistan's visiting Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, featured discussions about the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan, where the United States and Pakistan have common interests. But for Washington and Islamabad, there will be life after Afghanistan, which is not the central issue facing the two governments. It is: How can the US strengthen civilian, secular, constitutional democracy in Pakistan while at the same time deterring Pakistan from what appears to be its determined drive - fueled largely by fear of its larger neighbor, India - to develop a nuclear weapon?
After just six months in office, Prime Minister Bhutto's coalition is still shaky, and some supporters are growing restive over her inability thus far to improve economic and social conditions. Meanwhile, resistance from Islamic conservatives is growing. And Bhutto knows the generals are looking over her shoulder. Strong US approval and generous US aid are recognized in Washington as vital elements in Bhutto's efforts to solidify her base.
Yet the US is properly committed to blocking the spread of nuclear weapons in the third world. Despite protestations that Pakistan's nuclear program is strictly peaceful, most US analysts are skeptical. It's getting harder for the White House to certify Pakistan's compliance with nonproliferation laws, a condition to the continuation of US aid.
It's not necessary that things reach an impasse whereby the US must choose between assisting Pakistani democracy and adhering to its nonproliferation policy. The US can encourage both Pakistan and India to ratchet back their respective nuclear programs: first, by using its good offices to improve Indo-Pakistani relations (a process that has already been given a nudge by Bhutto and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi), and, second, by assisting in the development of antinuclear confidence-building measures between the neighbors - through, for instance, surveillance and verification procedures.
Pakistan is a valuable US friend in Southwest Asia. Through imaginative diplomacy, Washington should be able to avoid straining relations by painting itself into a nonproliferation corner.