A Fool's Errand in S. Asia

Clinton's effort to excuse Pakistan's nuclear program is dangerous

CERTAIN members of Congress, at the behest of the Clinton administration, want to repeal or make a one-time exception to the Pressler Amendment, which prohibits military transfers, sales, or assistance to Pakistan unless the president of the United States can certify that Pakistan does not ``possess a nuclear explosive device''.

Proponents argue that despite the existence of the Pressler Amendment, Pakistan has proceeded apace with its nuclear weapons program. Consequently, the reasoning goes, if the 38 F-l6 fighter planes that Pakistan has already paid for are delivered, the US can assuage Pakistan's security concerns and obtain some kind of leverage on the nonproliferation front.

Yet given recent US-Pakistani relations, the argument falls apart.

Between 1981 and 1989, the US provided Pakistan with two sizeable tranches of economic and military assistance. Composed of grants and loans, the aid totaled $7.2 billion. Those who lobbied for the assistance argued it would elicit Pakistan's cooperation in the prosecution of the Afghan war. In order to provide this aid, under the 1985 Pressler Amendment, the Reagan and Bush administrations ``certified'' that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon.

Yet during this very period Pakistan plunged into a quest for nuclear weapons. The US was well aware of Pakistan's nuclear undertakings as early as 1986. Nevertheless, the US provided Pakistan with F-16's while winking at its burgeoning (and clandestine) nuclear program. In doing so, the US government overlooked the abysmal human rights record under the military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

It also stood by and watched as the Pakistani military skimmed resources the US had earmarked for Afghan mujahideen. Apologists for a renewed US-Pakistan military relationship said that dislodging the Soviets from Afghanistan was worth the price. Perhaps so. Since no alternatives were pursued, we don't know.

What is known (official views to the contrary) is that US nonproliferation goals in South Asia were all but abandoned during this period. Supplying Pakistan with F-16s, the Abrams M-1 tank, and various other items of high-performance weaponry had no effect in slowing Islamabad's nuclear program. Instead it drove India, Pakistan's principal rival, into a hysterical round of arms-buying from the Soviets. During the first Reagan years, Indo-US relations took their sharpest plunge since Nixon's tilt toward Pakistan in the 1971 war.

Today Pakistan is making a fitful transition to democracy. Democratic institutions - a free press for example - are slowly asserting themselves. Yet an informed observer of Pakistan knows that democratic institutions exist at the whim of an entrenched military. More than a quarter of Pakistan's budget is devoted to defense - not including money dedicated to internal security, the intelligence, or the subterranean nuclear program. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, widely criticized in her first political incarnation as too ``soft'' on India, treads lightly around the military.

Given Pakinstani power structures, there is little evidence that the military establishment has abandoned its nuclear quest. To believe that lifting the Pressler Amendment or offering a one-time exception to its strictures will help US nonproliferation goals, is a fool's errand. Neither the recent record nor current realities in Pakistan suggest that renewal of military assistance will halt the nuclear push.

Actually, this country-specific legislation keeps Pakistan on notice regarding its clandestine program. A reprieve now will undermine, not strengthen, the administration's goals.

The White House might review the record to find instances when Islamabad has sought to address US policy concerns in South Asia. One of the few occasions when Pakistan proved willing to engage in discussions with India was after the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, during which the US came to India's assistance.

India and Pakistan insist that neither will approach the nuclear negotiating table without the other. What better way to entice Pakistan to cooperate with the US nonproliferation agenda than to elicit such cooperation from India?

While sustaining the pressure the Pressler Amendment exerts on Islamabad, Washington must continue its incipient dialogue with New Delhi on the nuclear question in South Asia. In that quest, one fruitful avenue involves discussions on the verifiable cutoff of fissile material production in the region. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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