Despite all the rhetoric of a new strategic partnership between Islamabad and Washington the much-coveted prize of a civilian nuclear deal was politely, but firmly, denied to the visiting high-level Pakistani delegation by the US.
Although the Pakistani establishment claimed they were satisfied with the negotiations, including on the nuclear deal, there was clear disappointment, especially as the US-Pakistan no-deal was in stark contrast to the announcement just days earlier that New Delhi and Washington had ironed out the final details of the India-US civilian nuclear deal which would allow India to reprocess nuclear material that has been used in its reactors.
Also Read W Pal Sidhu’s earlier columns
Although this might sound like a significant advantage to India, it is in fact New Delhi which is catching-up. More importantly, if we were to step back for a moment and look at the issue dispassionately, a similar deal between Pakistan and the US may not be such a bad idea at all from India’s strategic point of view.
It is worth remembering that Pakistan and the US had a tacit nuclear deal in the 1980s, which actually enabled Islamabad to develop its nuclear weapons under the watchful eyes of their American interlocutors who were then dependent on the military rulers in Pakistan to conduct their first war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. For several years from 1985 onwards the US president, no less, certified that Pakistan had not crossed the nuclear threshold even though all evidence pointed to the contrary.
It was only in 1990 when the Soviet Union had been pushed out of Afghanistan and Pakistan was no longer needed as a logistics base and launch-pad that President George H. W. Bush withheld the certification, thus providing a de-facto declaration of Islamabad’s nuclear weapon status. No other country, not even the closest allies of Washington, let alone India, has been so privileged.
Twenty-five years later events have come a full-circle.
As Washington struggles in its second war in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban-Al-Qaeda combine, it remains dependent on the Pakistani military for its mission. Islamabad’s price for its cooperation is to seek a strategic partnership with a new civilian nuclear deal as the icing on top of this shaky cake.
Despite India’s innate opposition to a US-Pakistan deal it might actually be in New Delhi’s advantage not to use its energies to block such a deal but to ensure that it is carefully crafted so as to provide a number of strategic benefits.
First, a civilian nuclear deal would have to meet the fundamental criteria of ensuring that the nuclear establishment is under the control of the elected civilian leadership, as is the case in India. This is far from true in Pakistan where the military remains the principal actor not only in the nuclear field but also in almost every aspect of governance of the state.
The requirement of civilian control is clearly laid down in Washington’s Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act (EPPA) of 2009, also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill, and it should come as no surprise that the earliest opposition to the US-Pakistan civilian nuclear deal has come from Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar. Although the EPPA has its own drawbacks (see Borderline, Throwing good money after a bad cause, 3 November 2009) any deal that upholds its basic principle of strengthening the civilian leadership over nuclear matters and the military is advantageous to India.
The India-US nuclear deal was five years in the making and almost brought down an elected government in the process. It barely came to fruition despite the intense political capital that the top Indian and US leadership invested in the process. It is unlikely that the fractious Pakistani polity, with the constant jostling for power between the elected civilian leadership and the restless military, will remain united long enough to see the deal through. Similarly, there is no indication that the top US leadership is willing to invest as heavily in a deal with Pakistan, especially given the unresolved proliferation issues centered on A.Q. Khan. Thus, a civilian nuclear deal has the potential of fermenting additional political instability in Pakistan.
Second, as was the case with the India-US civilian nuclear deal, an elaborate separation plan for the civilian and military assets will have to be implemented. This was a difficult undertaking for India even though the bulk of its nuclear assets are civilian; it will be a near impossible task for Pakistan as most of its nuclear assets are geared towards the military programme. Indeed, unless Pakistan builds additional civilian nuclear assets accepting a separation plan would virtually cap its nuclear weapons programme; another advantage for India.
Third, by entering into such an agreement Washington would also be underwriting Pakistan’s nuclear non-proliferation commitment. Holding Islamabad responsible for its behaviour would benefit not only India but also the global cause of non-proliferation.
Finally, although a US-Pakistan civilian nuclear deal will certainly dent India’s quest for exceptionalism, it would also alleviate India’s isolation in the global nuclear arena. No longer will India be the odd-man out and the sole target of criticism by non-nuclear weapon states within and outside the non-aligned movement; Islamabad would also have to share the blame for upsetting the nuclear order.
As India is not in a position to block such a deal, there is not only virtue but also several advantages for New Delhi to let Pakistan eat its uranium cake; it is another matter whether Islamabad will be able to digest this rich offering.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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