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Pakistan-US: A new deal?

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By Nasim Zehra

At the April 12-13 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) organised in Washington DC on the personal initiative of US President Barack Hussain Obama, the “P” word was missing from the entire formal proceedings of the conference. The objective was to globally underscore the great risk and the grave dangers of nuclear terrorism. The bottom line was that the conference participants must deny terrorists, through strict and stringent security systems, the opportunity to make “dirty bombs”. All nuclear materials must be prevented from getting into the hands of terrorists.

Perhaps the rules of the conference precluded the possibility of any delegate criticising another country by name. Interestingly, even the US mainstream press had no usual ‘scoops’ singling out Pakistan’s nuclear programme or on the danger of terrorists accessing Pakistani nuclear facilities because of the allegedly weak security around these facilities, or even some new purported scoop on the AQ Khan network. The tone of the US media during the three days of the conference was indicative of the beginnings of a change in the US attitude. The April 12 front-page story of the New York Times, for example, while reporting on Pakistan’s new nuclear facility, linked it to India’s expanding nuclear arsenal. The usual singling out of only Pakistan was missing.

However, it was at the conclusion of the NSS summit that a senior NBC reporter accused the US president of diluting his concern for the security of nuclear weapons and nuclear material when it came to Pakistan. An NBC reporter asked Obama that while Pakistan was not a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory and had proximity to al Qaeda, yet it appeared it was expanding its nuclear programme. Hence, the reporter added, “It appears as if Pakistan is playing by a different set of rules” and that “should there not be more pressure internationally on Pakistan, not just coming from the US, but the world?”

Obama rejected the reporter’s concerns, stating, “I have actually seen progress over the last several years with respect to Pakistan’s nuclear security issues. I feel confident about Pakistan’s security around its nuclear weapons programmes.” He also said, “I don’t think Pakistan is playing by a different set of rules.”

To illustrate the point that all nuclear security programmes needed to be improved, the US president, to everyone’s surprise, recalled the nuclear accident that took place in the US in which “nuclear-tipped missiles on a bomber were flying across the US and nobody knew about it. And Secretary Robert Gates took exactly the right step, which was to hold those in charge accountable and to significantly alter our practices to make sure something like that didn’t happen again.”

Then in a rare show of humility, Obama concluded that “It’s important to note that every nuclear power, every country that has a civilian nuclear energy programme, has to take better steps to secure these materials. We aren’t, either.”

While Obama’s Pakistan-specific statements focused on the nuclear factor alone, several indicators pointed towards the beginnings of a potentially more credible US policy towards Pakistan. In his meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, he was positive and complimentary. He recalled he had met Gilani first at the Willard Hotel in Washington while he was still a presidential candidate. He complimented Gilani on Pakistan’s “continued democratic successes.” Referring to the passage of the 18th Amendment he said, “I want to congratulate you on the continued democratic successes. Prime minister your democratic status has grown domestically and continues to grow at the international level.”

On bilateral relations, an upbeat Obama said he had got “excellent reports” on the outcome of the Washington round of the Strategic Dialogue. Promising Pakistan the long awaited support for the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs), facilitating the release of the IMF tranche due early May and lobbying with the Europeans for early release of pledges made at the Friends of Democratic Pakistan Forum, Obama told the Pakistani prime minister, “I will take it to the heights where it has never been taken before.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry, during their call on the prime minister, reinforced Obama’s message. Kerry even discussed the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

However, it is now within a relatively positive overall context that this relationship would proceed forward. Many elements contribute towards the making of a positive context. Eight are noteworthy.

One, the candid, continuous and across-the-board engagement between the political leadership and the civil-military bureaucracies of the two countries has yielded the much-needed candour in the bilateral interaction. While engagements are about processes and not events, there are always eye-openers and turning points that actually represent markers for the shifts. In this relationship, the US secretary of state’s trip to Pakistan was the eye-opener and the Strategic Dialogue in the US was the turning point. If Hillary Clinton witnessed the scale and depth of the Pakistani resentment over Washington’s ‘double standards’ with Pakistan, at the March Strategic Dialogue the two sides set up fast-track mechanisms to resolve specific issues.

Two, the numerous steps, legal and administrative, taken by Pakistan for the security of its nuclear programme, nuclear material, and to control smuggling of fissile materials have finally convinced the key players in the international community that Pakistan’s nuclear programme is secure. The US has itself provided technical assistance and funds setting up effective security mechanisms. Finally the stigma of the AQ Khan network is gradually disappearing.

Three, there is now within the Obama Administration acknowledgement of Pakistan’s legitimate security requirements which includes its nuclear programme. In a definite departure from non-stop innuendos, leaks and indirect attacks on Pakistan’s programmes coming from US officials and legislators, the US president himself chose to reassure the Pakistani prime minister during the April 11th Blair House meeting that Pakistan need not have any fears that the US has any designs on Pakistan’s programmes. This was thus a first official acknowledgement of Pakistani suspicions that the US would ultimately want to ‘rollback’ or ‘take out’ Pakistan’s nuclear programme. “Do not be fearful of our designs on your programme and we are not fearful of your programme. We only do not want the weapons to get in the wrong hands.”

Four, there is now a public acknowledgment that Pakistan’s nuclear programme is linked to the regional situation, and hence despite the growing Washington-Delhi strategic nexus, it is no longer tenable to treat Pakistan’s nuclear programme as one de-linked from the Indian investment in nuclear weapons. Accordingly, the US administration recognises that without lessening of tensions in South Asia, neither can there be greater cooperation to stop smuggling of nuclear material, nor put brakes on the nuclear arms race in the region. At his April 13 press conference Obama himself said, “I want to lower tensions throughout South Asia when it comes to nuclear programmes.”

Hence the Obama Administration’s policy of de-hyphenating of Pakistan-US within its policy context was as short-lived as the regional dynamic would have allowed it. Pakistan-India now stand re-hyphenated. Speaking on April 13 to this scribe, the US State Department spokesman Peter Crawley said that the US president met with both the prime ministers and discussed the issue of restarting the Pakistan-India dialogue. Crawley said the US president also discussed with the two prime ministers the issue of nuclear arms in the context of the South Asia nuclear arms race. Reiterating the Obama Administration’s position the spokesman said, “Both countries are here and both are nuclear nations and with that come special responsibilities.”

Five, having recognised the fundamental flaws of its ill-conceived Af-Pak policy, in which the two vastly different quality of states were equated together as a problem, Washington and the international community views Pakistan as a key country whose role in facilitating some semblance of peace and security is needed.

Six, a clearly articulated policy shift is discernible within the Obama administration towards the non-NPT nuclear states. The Obama Administration now focuses on calling on the widely acknowledged non-NPT nuclear states like Pakistan and Israel to sign the NPT as opposed to pushing for counter-proliferation. We may therefore see before the 2011 NPT conference, Pakistan acknowledged as a nuclear state. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been upfront in linking the issues of nuclear arms race and the production of fissile material to peace and stability in South Asia. Meanwhile, as a nuclear state, Pakistan reiterated its mid-nineties proposal of establishing a Nuclear Restraint Regime in South Asia, which would promote nuclear and missile restraint, a balance in conventional forces, and conflict resolution.

Seven, there is now a gradual but discernible paradigm shift in the Obama Administration’s approach to international affairs. “Do we have an international one world law enforcement mechanism – no we don’t, we have never had – we depend on the goodwill – that’s the way international affairs work.” In a sharp contrast to Bush’s preference for unilateralist policies, which ignored the UN and opted for illegal and militaristic notions of pre-emptive military strikes, the Obama Administration has opted for multi-lateralism and bilateralism. It has shown its preference for not ‘going it alone’ even on volatile issues like sanctions against Iran and to work within the discipline of the UN.

Recent decisions taken by the Obama Administration to stop compulsory screening of all flight passengers from 15 Muslim countries and stop the use of jihad within the context of terrorism suggest that the Obama Administration is keen to identify the weak links in its post-9/11 policies.

Eight, the Obama Administration will be more proactively involved in cooling down the world’s ‘hot-spots’. At the April 13 press conference, Obama’s words were loud and clear, replacing the coy and cautious approach. “Hot spots in the world are linked to US national security,” he declared. As the world’s major military power, the US is pulled into every major global conflict and then we pay in blood and money. Hence he declared the US would proactively attempt to remain a global military power.

Clearly these changes flow from the compulsions of a strategically altered South and South West Asian security context and from an emerging paradigm shift that drives US foreign policy. The two are of course inter-related and are essential outcomes of the Bush and subsequently to some extent, of the Obama Administration’s highly unsuccessful post-9/11 policies.

The cumulative impact of these factors can be the reduction in the trust deficit that has hampered evolution of a genuine Pakistan-US partnership. In an environment of improved credibility, there will be a greater appreciation of each other’s concerns and expectations linked to the relationship. Pakistan needs to see early action from the US in the areas of market access, soft credits and support in the energy sector on an urgent basis. As for the big ticket items, ranging from Pakistan’s border security to tackling the roots of terrorism spread from Afghanistan to India and from the formal recognition of Pakistan as a nuclear state to support for non-discriminatory access to civil nuclear technology, the onus of establishing the legitimacy of Pakistan’s demands is on Islamabad’s political leadership. In addition to the legitimacy, there is enough that the Pakistani leadership can leverage from within a positive bilateral context to acquire Washington’s support on these items.

The writer is an anchor and Director Current Affairs at a private TV channel\04\20\story_20-4-2010_pg7_7

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