The foundation for America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific was laid when Richard Nixon became the president of the United States. It demanded a new beginning in the US-China relationship for which the US reached out to Pakistan. For the following two years, Pakistan played the role of a messenger between Nixon and Chairman Mao. Pakistan facilitated a secret visit of secretary of state Henry Kissinger to China on July 9, 1971, and was rewarded for this diplomatic service with a temporary relaxation on arms sales ban, which was imposed in 1965. As a result, Iran and Jordan were given a green signal to assist Pakistan militarily. It was not until the House Foreign Affairs Committee took notice of this violation that Nixon announced suspension of all aids and conditioned its restoration to the resolution of the political issues in East Pakistan. This did not however stop the Nixon administration from releasing $24 million worth of military equipment that had been blocked since 1971. The 1967 arms supply policy was also reinstated.
In the meantime, prime minister Bhutto, wary of the duplicitous and inconsistent US role in the 1971 war and India’s direct intervention in the creation of Bangladesh, had propelled Pakistan on the path of developing nuclear weapons for national security. Though after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, his successor president Ford had lifted the arm sales ban on Pakistan, it did little to normalise the relations that had become exceedingly sour because of Bhutto’s refusal to discontinue or suspend Pakistan’s journey to nuclearisation. The situation aggravated when Kissinger, during his visit to India in October 1974, described it as the ‘pre-eminent power’ in the region.
President Jimmy Carter kept the pressure high on Pakistan and to dwarf its image he marked India as the potential regional power in the revised US-South Asia foreign policy. To reinforce this policy, Carter made a visit to India on January 1, 1978, and, unlike his predecessors, did not stop in Pakistan. General Ziaul Haq, who was also the president of the country, following in the footsteps of Bhutto, refused to bend to the US threat and accepted sanctions on economic aid.
While the US-Pakistan relationship floundered because of nuclear-related issues, the India-US relationship strengthened for the same reason. Instead of punishing New Delhi for exploding the nuclear device, the US was providing enriched-uranium fuel to India for nuclear power reactors at Tarapur, near Bombay. Matters became worse when an interagency group in the US led by arms-control expert Gerard Smith told The New York Times that the US had an option to attack Pakistan’s nuclear facility in Kahuta.
In October 1979, Agha Shahi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, went to the US to try and break the deadlock. His counterpart, secretary of state Cyrus Roberts Vance laid down three conditions for the continuation of any talk: First, that Pakistan would not transfer nuclear technology to other countries. Second, that it will open its nuclear facilities to international inspection. Third, that it would not test a nuclear device. Pakistan agreed to comply with only the first condition. Shahi made it clear that unless India opened its nuclear facilities to inspection, Pakistan would not comply with the request.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the US-Pakistan relations bounced back to normalisation. Carter called Zia and revisited the 1959 bilateral security agreement to thwart Communist aggression and offered to bolster Pakistan’s security. Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, is reported to have said: “Circumstance required the United States to set aside concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear programme, at least temporarily.”
The war began and the US was okay with Pakistan’s assurance that its nuclear programmes would not embarrass the former. To the experts the assurance was a tacit agreement that even if Pakistan made the bomb, it would not explode it. Nevertheless, to assuage congressional pressure to keep a check on Pakistan’s nuclear-related activities, president Reagan agreed to the Pressler Amendment. The bill suggested that Pakistan would not be provided any military or technological equipment unless the American president certified that Pakistan did not “possess” a nuclear explosive device and that the assistance provided by the US would “reduce significantly the risk that Pakistan will possess a nuclear explosive device”. The catch was in the term “possession” that was left open to wild interpretation and was dependent on the intelligence report, which at that point of time did not ‘reveal’ that Pakistan’s nuclear-related activities were progressing because of US assistance. The bill hence favoured the continuation of military and economic assistance and Pakistan received $4 billion in aid in 1986.
The assessment began to change as the war drew closer to an end. Pakistan was told that: “With the departure of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the winding down of the Cold War the policy dynamic on the nuclear issue had changed.” The apparently toothless bill would soon become Pakistan’s nemesis with sanctions imposed on it for clandestinely running the nuclear explosive programme.
Since the amendment came on the heels of the Afghan war’s end, it brought into spotlight the ‘disposability’ factor that relates to the US behaviour of abandoning Pakistan after ‘using’ it for achieving its foreign policy objectives. The duplicity had once again corroborated a general belief that the US uses a fickle-minded approach in its relations with Pakistan.
For all its efforts, however, the US could not bring either India or Pakistan to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and could do little to prevent both countries from testing nuclear devices in May 1998. In a typical reaction, the US condemned Pakistan but accepted India’s stance as a natural deterrent against China. It would not be wrong to say that America’s duplicitous and India-centric nuclear policy in South Asia has plunged the region into an arms race.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2020.