Nuclear Issue Strains US-Pakistan Ties

WASHINGTON'S decade-long infatuation with Pakistan is turning into impatience. Concern about Pakistan's nuclear program hasn't yet cut deeply into United States aid for the nation. But Congress is growing less enthusiastic about money for Pakistan as the good will engendered by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's 1988 election begins to fade.

Clearly, US feeling for Pakistan ``is not as warm and fuzzy as it used to be,'' a State Department official says.

A cooling in feeling between the two countries was probably inevitable. The US-Pakistani relationship has long bounced back and forth between enthusiasm and wariness. In the '60s, the US was suspicious of Pakistan because of its ties to China. In the '70s, President Carter cut off aid as part of his nuclear non-proliferation efforts. In the '80s, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made Pakistan a front-line state in the cold war, and it became America's tough ally in South Asia and third-largest foreign-aid recipient.

The Soviet pullout from Afghanistan has lessened a strategic reason for the US-Pakistan friendship, and it revealed differences between the two nations over which Afghan rebel factions to back. The crisis of separatist violence in the Indian province of Kashmir, with recriminations between India and Pakistan threatening to escalate into war, has further strained US-Pakistani ties.

The Bush administration has been very concerned about the Kashmir situation. In May, deputy national security adviser Robert Gates flew to the region and told the Pakistanis that if it comes to blows with India the US would be neutral; no more aid or spare parts would be forthcoming for Pakistan's large arsenal of US weapons. US officials say they are pleased with the outcome of the Gates trip and that they have successfully maintained a balanced posture in the dispute. In Islamabad, this posture is apparently being interpreted as favoring India.

``We have been in the anomalous position of having a military alliance with a country one-eighth the size of another in the region,'' says Selig Harrison, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``We've been changing our policy towards India, reducing our tilt to Pakistan.''

As evidence of the new US attitude, Mr. Harrison points to a recent US government decision to not take retaliatory trade action against India, even though US Trade Representative Carla Hills judged it an unfair trading partner.

The nuclear issue has long been the biggest irritant in US-Pakistani relations. US law bars foreign aid to any country that explodes a nuclear device, uses foreign technology to develop sophisticated uranium-processing facilities, or illegally obtains nuclear components in the US. Pakistan has not exploded a bomb, but according to US officials it has violated the other two restrictions.

Waivers placed in the foreign-aid bill have to date allowed US funds to flow to Pakistan on a year-by-year basis. But the original draft of this year's foreign-aid bill, which allocates funds for fiscal 1991, didn't contain the Pakistan waiver, according to a congressional staffer who works on the issue. It took action by strong backers of Pakistan in Congress to insert the waiver after the bill began wending its way through the House.

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