Pakistan-India nuclear rivalry heats up

Posted in Asia | 06-Mar-06 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari| Source: Asia Times

The United States never understood the permanent nature of the quest for power symmetry that drives Pakistan in its bitter rivalry with its larger and more powerful neighbor, India. That quest is currently driving it to seek the same type of nuclear deal with the US that India has received. As much as Pakistan wishes for that, it is not likely to get it unless it takes at least two steps, both of which it will not take any time soon.

So, wittingly or unwittingly, President George W Bush has intensified the nuclear-arms race and a race for technological parity in conventional military that are two essential elements of the power symmetry between the two South Asian rivals.

One of the idiosyncrasies of US foreign policy is that either it remains oblivious to the implications of its regional policies for major rivals or adversaries in that region or it fails to pay sufficient attention as to how its new political maneuvers would affect the balance of power in it. Such an inadequate attention is costly in South Asia, where America's stakes as related to its "war on terrorism" are so high and where the regime of President General Pervez Musharraf is doing so much in terms of fighting that war on behalf of the United States.

Even though Pakistan has emerged as America's major frontline ally in the era since September 11, 2001, there remains ample alienation and, indeed, antagonistic attitude toward that country in the US Congress and within the nuclear non-proliferation community. There may be a number of reasons underlying that unsympathetic attitude, but two bear mentioning, for they are significant and stand out quite vividly.

First there is the absence of democracy in Pakistan in an era when the Bush administration is harping so much on it for the Middle East, though not necessarily for all the Muslim countries with the same intensity. A number of US legislators remain quite flustered with Bush officials for not putting sufficient pressure on Musharraf to democratize Pakistan. At the same time, there is ambivalence inside Congress on the entire issue of promoting democracy in Muslim countries. After all, there is plenty of evidence to show that when elections are held in Muslim countries - eg Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine - hardline Islamists candidates may do well. Despite this paradox, the absence of democracy in Pakistan has left it with few strong supporters inside the US Congress.

Second, the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear-proliferation factor has remained a source of irritation and anger in Congress, a body that will scrutinize any potential US-Pakistan nuclear deal if it becomes a reality, just as it will scrutinize the just-concluded US-India nuclear agreement. Few US legislators, if any, believe the imprudent explanation Pakistan has proffered that the "father" of its nuclear bomb was acting as a "loose cannon", and without the knowledge or approval of the government, in his proliferation-related activities involving North Korea, Iran and Libya. What is even more annoying to US lawmakers is that the Bush administration did not take a resolute stand on interviewing the Pakistani nuclear scientist to find out the full extent and scope of his nuclear-proliferation activities.

Consequently, the United States has to rely on the official Pakistani narrative on how much damage Khan had really caused by providing highly sensitive technical information on nuclear weaponization to North Korea and Iran. Of these two countries, the general understanding is that North Korea has already developed nuclear weapons and Iran may not be too far behind.

India, in contrast, has a clean record regarding its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. Still, that country has a number of critics inside the US Congress. A number of US legislators are still smarting from the way New Delhi surprised and embarrassed US intelligence sources when it exploded its nuclear bomb in May 1998. Since then, it not only has refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but rebuffs all suggestions to de-escalate the pace of modernization of its nuclear forces. US decision-makers are unconcerned that India's decision to continue modernizing its nuclear forces is in direct response to its reading of similar activities by China and Pakistan.

The US-India nuclear deal is viewed in Islamabad as a major setback for its vital interests. Through its strategic partnership with India, the Bush administration may be focused on containing China. However, Pakistan envisages that partnership as just another maneuver of India to ensure that Pakistan does not achieve parity in the realm of nuclear as well as conventional military power. Musharraf definitely feels that the US-India nuclear deal has weakened his own position vis-a-vis the super-hawks and Islamist elements in the Pakistani army. He might even feel betrayed by his friend George Bush.

What will Pakistan do in the aftermath of the US-India nuclear deal? The most logical steps it must take are toward democratization and to allow US national-security personnel to interview Khan directly. However, both these steps are not likely to be taken any time soon. Even if he were to decide to democratize Pakistan, Musharraf's credibility is so low in that regard that few in the United States would believe he was serious. The issue of allowing Khan to be interviewed by US officials is so explosive that Musharraf might not want to start a firestorm of protests by merely agreeing to it.

In the absence of the preceding, Pakistan is likely to take the following measures. First and foremost, it will continue to make its case with Washington for a similar nuclear deal to India's. It will even take some concrete measures to assure its critics inside the United States that it will no longer serve as a "nuclear Wal-Mart". Second, it will continue to expand its long-standing nuclear cooperation with China, or even broaden its nuclear horizons by approaching Russia.

China is fully aware that the US is using its nuclear deal with India to put pressure on Beijing. China will continue its similar maneuvers by using Pakistan to put pressure on India, its growing trade ties with Delhi notwithstanding. US-Russia ties relations have recently become visibly competitive in Central Asia. So Moscow would be receptive to making its own deals with Pakistan to create undercurrents within its neighborhood that would place it in a more competitive position vis-a-vis Washington.

If all else fails, Pakistan will hope that the US-India nuclear deal faces a major hurdle either in the US Congress or with the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Chances are US legislators will be critical of the deal. Though they might not go to the extent of rejecting or blocking it, if some of them were to start to nit-pick the deal, the government of India might be forced to back out of it for reasons of national honor and prestige.

The Communist Party of India, which is a coalition partner with the Congress party-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, will be watching the US Congress with rapt attention, and will be ready to pounce on the Indian government if it gives any further concessions to the Bush administration. The communists aren't too happy with the fact that the government has already placed 18 of India's 22 nuclear reactors under civilian control, thereby opening them for periodic inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Whether the remaining eight reactors will be sufficient for the requirement of India's dynamic nuclear deterrence against China and Pakistan is likely to be a source of constant debate in India.

Pakistan knows that it just lost one round on the nuclear deal, but its long-standing battle and uphill quest to reach military parity with India will continue. Islamabad still has an ace in its pocket. It might slow the pace of its cooperation in the "war on terrorism" to put pressure on the US for a nuclear deal of its own. That option is dicey. However, the nuances and uncertainties related to the US anti-terrorism campaign continue to favor Pakistan, especially while the uphill battle in Iraq is putting constant pressure on Bush.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: