Washington had better look before it leaps precipitately into a close embrace with Pakistan. After the Russians marched into Afghanistan, President Carter offered the Pakistanis some $400 million in aid over two years to shore up their defenses and economy. President Zia ul-Haq scornfully turned down the offer as "peanuts." Now comes word that the Reagan administration is considering an offer of $500 million in military and economic aid for one year -- twice as much. Would the peanuts now look like cashews?
It does seem odd that the administration would decide such a matter without knowing precisely what the Pakistani reaction would be. Logically US and Pakistani leaders would discuss the issue and the President would know in advance what Pakistan seeks and what kind of reception an aid offer would have. From press accounts, it does not appear that the administration is certain of Pakistan's position.
The annoncement of a possible aid program sends out a signal, of course, and this one is in keeping with the general Reagan policy of countering Soviet ambitions around the world more overtly and forcefully than in the past. And, concomitantly, harassing "friendly" governments less about their violations of human rights. Pakistan, with 85,000 troops now ensconced on its borders, is an obvious target of the new policy.
But the US, if it is not careful, risks getting sucked into a sticky situation from which it will later be difficult to extricate itself. Iran --gave the Shah -- was an object lesson. Pakistan, too, may be on the edge of revolutionary turmoil, and sidling up too closely to the present authoritarian government could prove unwise. General Zia is increasingly unpopular in his country. Opposition to his regime is spreading, demands for the lifting of martial law and free elections are growing. The government's efforts to restore traditional Islamic law have not won widespread support. In these circumstances of potential political unrest, extreme caution would seem to be the best course for US diplomacy.
There are, moreover, other straws in the wind. While the integrity of Pakistan is important to stability in the Persian Gulf and to the West's economic interests there, it makes more sense for the countries of the region to take the lead in bolstering their own security. Pakistan already has developed a close military relationship with Saudi Arabia, which may be giving the Pakistanis up to $1 billion in aid a year. This Saudi effort to develop a collective security arrangement deserves thoughtful consideration in Washington as an alternative to an (unwanted) heavy American presence in the area. All the more so since Pakistan itself is wary of too direct a tie with the United States.
Other questions, too, need to be taken into account -- Pakistan's effort to develop nuclear weapons (which, by US law, now bars American aid), its hostile relations with India, and the desirability of reaching some internationally negotiated agreement with the Soviet Union about its status in Afghanistan. These are all complex issues that call for careful scrutiny before plunging ahead and, as the saying goes, "throwing money at the problem." This is not to criticize the administration's effort to improve ties with Pakistan or to rule out measured assistance for the Zia government. But much more is at stake here than dollars.