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Toward a more constructive US role in South Asia

A year ago, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee committed their nations to becoming responsible nuclear powers at United Nations General Assembly meetings. Having stunned the world with underground nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, both leaders pledged to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) before the start of this year's UN session.

What a difference a year makes!

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Pakistan's Islamic radicals are on the rise and have virtually taken over its city streets. The economy's growing reliance on American taxpayer-funded loans from the International Monetary Fund has politically handcuffed the government at home, pitting Mr. Sharif's strongest supporters - the business community - against increasingly frustrated international lenders.

India's hard-liners, unwilling to open meaningful dialogue with Pakistan on the region's nuclear flashpoint, Kashmir, following Islamabad's military gambit there last summer, are considering more nuclear tests - this time with miniaturized warheads.

Predictably, American lawmakers are in no mood to entice CTBT decisions in either country with major modifications of US economic and military sanctions. But congressional reticence is dangerous. Current policy has encouraged India to resist global pressure to ban nuclear tests partly because of the uneven effects arising from US sanctions.

Economically, New Delhi is not reliant on World Bank or IMF support. Militarily, Russia supplies most of its $3 billion in annual conventional military purchases. US economic and military sanctions then are little more than a nuisance. Pakistan, forever responding to the next Indian maneuver, is cornered by US policy imbalances.

New Delhi knows Islamabad cannot pragmatically sign on unless India does so first, and rests in the knowledge that it can "test and then sign" and leave Pakistan in the corner.

The economics are telling: 75 percent of all IMF aid given to Islamabad simply repays interest on IMF loans. Militarily, the weakening of Pakistan's conventional military caused by America's total arms embargo since 1990 has forced the Army to rely more heavily on its Chinese-designed nuclear weapons and North Korean-made missiles. The result: A growing share of economic resources is being dedicated to building bombs and missiles rather than schools and hospitals.

To compound this disturbing pattern, Pakistan's Army officer corps, once among the most professional and secular in the world, is now suffering from the creep of impoverished, less-educated Islamists into its senior ranks.

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Legislative changes making their way through Congress will only heighten the inconsistencies in US nonproliferation policy toward South Asia. India's well-oiled US lobbying machinery - spearheaded by former Senate majority leader Bob Dole - has successfully gained support for sanctions relief, including the sale of dual-use technologies to India. Little economic relief is in store for Pakistan.

Sending India dual-use technologies before New Delhi commits to banning nuclear tests is tantamount to American complicity in developing increasingly sophisticated Indian weapons and weapons simulators.

Ultimately, however, the key to untangling South Asia's morass is in Sharif's hands. The only South Asian leader ever to have had such a solid parliamentary majority at home, he should leverage it to face down restive Islamists by offering the world Pakistan's unilateral signature on the CTBT. The US and other nuclear powers should accept a caveat: If further Indian testing occurs, Pakistan would reserve its pre-CTBT rights to respond. Pakistan could withhold ratification until India signs and international lending resumes.

Congress should encourage Pakistan to move first by permanently waiving economic sanctions against both countries with the proviso that US economic incentives will be tied in the future to progress on developing permanent trade patterns between both countries.

Conservative estimates show both countries could add more than 3 percent per annum to gross domestic product if they traded even mundane products, like cooking oil, bilaterally. The additional growth would permit meaningful construction of low-cost housing, schools, and medical facilities for South Asia's more than 1 billion citizens.

Military sanctions specific to Pakistan, such as spare parts embargoes, should be waived for a limited period under presidential authority so Islamabad might refurbish its conventional forces and thus reduce its reliance on nuclear and missile technologies.

Resuming the International Military Exchange and Training program would also be wise. In India's case, providing dual-use technologies should be tied to a more responsible nuclear course that bans further testing and limits the production of fissile materials.

The alternative to adjusting US policy inconsistencies is Islamic and Hindu radicalism run amok amid a disastrous arms race in the region. Perhaps the bankruptcy of South Asia's political and military leadership is irreversible, but US foreign policy need not follow suit.

*Mansoor Ijaz, a nuclear physicist of Pakistani descent, is chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York. His father was an early pioneer in developing Pakistan's nuclear program.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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