US Nuclear Concerns Endanger Pakistan Aid

PAKISTAN is confronting the stark reality that it could lose millions of dollars in United States economic and military aid that have helped it get by in recent years. The Bush Administration's refusal this week to certify to Congress that Pakistan does not possess a nuclear bomb holds open the possibility that the US will withhold, in accord with US law, about $500 million in aid from Pakistan, one of America's most loyal and longstanding allies.

But even as the administration refused the crucial certification, it was reported this week to be seeking a waiver from Congress to supply six months of US aid anyway, to give any newly-elected government time to reverse the country's pro-nuclear policy. Pakistan's national elections are scheduled for Oct. 24. Sentiment against supplying US aid under such circumstances appears to be building, though, with congressmen publicly cool to the idea.

Each year, assurances from Islamabad that it does not have a nuclear bomb have become more difficult for the president to guarantee to Congress. US concern over the issue has grown in the last year as tension between India and Pakistan has increased over the Kashmir territorial dispute, along with daily artillery battles. If Pakistan gained nuclear capability, many believe the possibility of a nuclear exchange between the two countries would rise.

Observers here, however, see any suspension of aid as merely symptomatic of the underlying stress between the US and Pakistan on a range of foreign and domestic policy issues.

The most immediate concern in US circles in Islamabad is the October election. Washington is anxious for the caretaker government to hold a free and fair election. The fairness of the election is increasingly seen as linked to possible disqualification from parliamentary membership of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and leader of the country's single largest party, the Pakistan Peoples Party. Ms. Bhutto faces corruption charges leveled at her by Pakistani President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. If convicted, she faces a ban from politics for seven years.

Robert Oakley, US ambassador to Islamabad, has termed the so-called accountability process against Bhutto as partisan. Regarding such concerns, a Western diplomat says ``we are very concerned with the survival of the democratic process in Pakistan.''

Regardless of the administration's view toward US aid, Congress is likely to be angered if elections do not proceed fairly, if the military takes over, or if Bhutto is disqualified from running for office. ``If any of these things happen, Congress will probably go against Pakistan,'' the diplomat predicted.

If such views harden into restrictions or conditions on aid, resentment is likely to harden on the Pakistani side. Pakistani Cabinet ministers have already charged US ``interference'' in its internal affairs.

Local US observers believe such attitudes reflect the realization that future aid levels may be cut anyway because of Washington's spending and budget concerns, the Gulf crisis, and its desire to assist Eastern Europe. ``We are bound to see more independence being expressed in policies as American aid is trimmed in the future,'' says a Western analyst. ``They can see the writing on the wall.''

Self interest seems likely, however, to continue to play a major role in deciding US aid to Pakistan, as it has done for the last decade. During the long years of the Afghan war, Washington and Pakistan's armed forces enjoyed a close, mutually beneficial relationship in assisting the Afghan mujahideen (rebels). The inflow of US money and support strengthened the late president, General Zia ul-Haq, and in the eyes of the country's intelligentsia, helped him sustain a dictatorship and Islamic fundamentalist rule.

But the Gulf crisis is increasingly likely to set the tone for, and provide the context within which US perceptions toward Pakistan are formed. Islamabad has already dispatched a small contingent to Saudi Arabia, while also floating suggestions of a pan-slamic force to replace US-led Western forces in the Gulf. In the long term, as the US considers a graceful way out of the Gulf, such a force might prove useful. But with Saudi Arabia nervous about Islamic reaction to their invitation to foreign, non-Muslim forces in the holy land of Islam, the Pakistan initiative could prove a challenge to US plans for Gulf security.

But the question remains whether the US will do business with a quasimilitary government. Senior officials in the armed forces have made it clear they will not permit Bhutto to return to power unconditionally, even if party wins this month's election. Military officials say if the PPP wins, a National Security Council ``consisting of the powers that count'' must be established. Such a council would solidify military predominance in foreign policy and defense. This would leave to the PPP government social and economic policies.

Such problems are not likely to emerge if the conservative religious group, the Islamic Democratic Alliance, wins the election. ``The alliance is not going to confront the armed forces,'' an alliance spokesman says. ``Our interests coincide.''

Pakistan liberals fear the result of such a coalition would be a quasimilitary government in which Rawalpindi generals would hold sway over the Islamabad government. That possibility likely worries Washington - along with a number of other irritants.

Since the PPP government was dismissed in August, the Afghan conflict has been revved up by Pakistan's powerful intelligence service. Rocket attacks on Kabul have resumed along with talk of another coup attempt against Afghan President Najibullah. But this acceleration of the war is occuring even as Washington and Moscow near agreement on composition of a transitional government to lead Afghanistan.

The US also wants to see tensions ease between India and Pakistan, and eventual long-term arms reduction in the region. Pakistan's Army, on the other hand, wants to see India suffer over the Kashmir conflict, military analysts say.

The Army is also eyeing possibilities created by the destabilization within the Soviet Union's Central Asian republics. Mushahid Hussein, a leading commentator known for his ties to the military says that ``by the mid 1990s we could have as many as seven Islamic republics in Central Asia. This is an enormous opportunity for Pakistan to increase its influence....'' Such ambitions may not coincide with the post-cold war thinking in Washington.

Pakistan's liberals are hoping such sharp differences will encourage the US to support the deomcratic forces as it faces the threat of another round of quasi-military rule. As Najim Sethi, a Lahore based columnist commented: ``The American factor has become all important now.''

Unfortunately, fear of an updated version of military rule coincides with deepening disenchantment by the voters toward both the PPP and Islamic Democratic Alliance.

``Both are riddled with feudalism, immature and hungry for the benefits of office,'' Mr. Sethi says. ``Feudalism has meant the same old faces come back year after year. Nothing changes in Pakistan, not even the prospect of martial law.''

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