Global Policy Forum

Why Pakistan Gets a Nuclear Pass


The Bush administration's pragmatic policy toward Pakistan suggests its foreign policy is less ideological than imperial.

By Lakshmi Chaudhry*

In These Times
September 22, 2006

Why wait?" asked William Kristol in a July 24 Weekly Standard op-ed calling for a preemptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. "Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later." By August, the usual array of neoconservative pundits were chanting the "Why wait?" mantra, as their supporters within the administration, most notably Donald Rumsfeld, issued dire warnings against "appeasement."

Yet in the midst of saber-rattling, the Bush administration was quietly doing its own share of appeasing--in the literal, if not historical, sense. In late July, the Institute for Science and International Security issued a report revealing that Pakistan was building a heavy-water reactor capable of producing enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year. The response from Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council, was surprisingly mild: ''The reactor is expected to be substantially smaller and less capable than reported.''

There also wasn't much hand-wringing on September 6 when Pakistan's military dictatorship announced a peace treaty with militants in North Waziristan, described by one analyst as al-Qaeda's "center of gravity." Vice President Cheney's response: to praise President Pervez Musharraf as "a man who has demonstrated great courage under very difficult political circumstances and has been a great ally for the United States."

Critics of the Bush foreign policy have accused the administration of undertaking a global crusade against radical Islam. Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, told NPR on August 30 that the Bush administration lumps all groups together in terms of this "Islamic fundamentalist, Islamo-fascist mush. ... That al-Qaeda is Hamas is Iran is al-Qaeda is Syria. They're all one enemy and we have to fight them all. Nonsense!" Their response to this undifferentiated, all-pervasive peril, he says, is a hyper-aggressive policy of preemptive regime change, "what [journalist] Ron Suskind calls 'The one percent doctrine'--if there's a one percent chance that Iran could get the bomb, give it to a terrorist group who could deliver it to New York, shouldn't we overthrow the regime?"

Suskind's book, The One Percent Doctrine, takes its title from Vice President Dick Cheney's response in November 2001 to intelligence that revealed meetings between top-ranking Pakistani nuclear experts and Osama bin Laden. At the end of the briefing, Cheney declared, "If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response." The irony is that the exception to this doctrine is the very nation that inspired its creation.

In stark contrast to its Middle East policy, the Bush administration's strategy with Pakistan has prioritized pragmatism over ideology, preferred diplomatic persuasion to military aggression and, most strikingly, displayed a willingness to tolerate Islamic extremism that does not directly challenge its interests. Pakistan hints at both a different, realpolitik side to the Bush foreign policy and a disconnect between the administration's moral and ideological rhetoric and its underlying goals. In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush pointed to North Korea, Iran and Iraq as part of the now infamous axis of evil: "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred."

His criteria for membership in this club of rogue states were clear: a dictatorship that possessed or aimed to acquire weapons of mass destruction with documented ties to Islamic terrorist groups. What Bush didn't mention was that he had already entered into a marriage of expedience with Pakistan, the one regime that fully met each of the three requirements (although he did profess his admiration for "the strong leadership of President Musharraf.")

Pakistan bears a striking resemblance to Iran, which Bush has described as a country held hostage by an "elite that is isolating and repressing its people, and denying them basic liberties and human rights." Like Iran, Pakistan is a regime that, in Bush's words, "sponsors terrorists and is actively working to expand its influence in its [neighboring] region." But unlike Iran, this sponsor of Islamic radicalism is already a bona fide nuclear power that has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What's more, Pakistan has shared its nuclear technology with almost every country on the administration's sworn enemies list: Libya, North Korea, and, yes, Iran.

Before its hasty switch of allegiances in the wake of 9/11, Musharraf's military dictatorship had been one of the Taliban regime's closest allies, and many top-ranking members of the Pakistani Army and the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had close, long-standing connections to al-Qaeda, dating back to the heydays of the anti-Soviet mujaheddin resistance. In fact, al-Qaeda was founded at a 1988 meeting in Peshawar, Pakistan. As a former diplomat told Seymour Hersh in the November 5, 2001, New Yorker, "If you go through the officer list, almost all of the I.S.I. regulars would say, of the Taliban, 'They are my boys.' "

But the Bush administration needed Pakistan's assistance to wage the war against Afghanistan, a country it knew practically nothing about. The result: a 180-degree reversal in U.S. policy, which in 1998, following Pakistan's nuclear test, had included economic sanctions and the withdrawal of aid. "The U.S.-Pakistan relationship was fundamentally transformed within a very short period of time under a large amount of pressure after September 11," says Council for Foreign Relations analyst Michael Levi. If the U.S. rationale for its change of heart was less than ideal, so was Pakistan's motive for joining the so-called war on terror, as Musharraf made clear in an September 23 interview with "60 Minutes": "The intelligence director told me that (then deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage) said, 'Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.' "

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains unchanged, even as Pakistan continues to flunk the Bush administration's own sniff test. Far from moving toward democracy, Musharraf is positioning himself to hold yet another round of rigged elections next year in order to stay in power until 2012. And while he may be no Saddam Hussein, Amnesty International has documented a variety of human rights abuses, including the torture and extra-judicial executions of insurgents by the Pakistani army in the ongoing civil war in Baluchistan.

As for ongoing connections with Islamic extremism, unlike the Baathist regime in Iraq or Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt, the Pakistani dictators have traditionally used Islamic ideology to secure their power, and Musharraf continues that tradition to this day. According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, "Gen. Musharraf and the military hierarchy are neither extremist nor remotely fundamentalist. But they have every intention of using the fundamentalists as political allies against national political parties who question the need for military rule."

In practice, this has meant not only encouraging militant jihadis to fight a proxy war against India in Kashmir, but also tolerating the pro-Taliban activities of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) in Baluchistan. "[The Taliban] have been able to set up a major logistics hub, training camps, carry out fundraising and have been free to recruit fighters from madrassas and refugee camps," wrote Rashid in a June 2 BBC column. "Al-Qaeda has helped the Taliban reorganize and forge alliances with other Afghan and Central Asian rebel groups."

Though the Bush administration has leaned on Musharraf behind the scenes, it's heaped extravagant praise on him in public, especially for his role in both foiling this summer's al-Qaeda plot to blow up planes using liquid explosives and in arresting the terrorists involved in the London subway bombings in 2005. Yet the arrests also point to a less appetizing reality that Pakistan remains, in the words of Rashid, "the global center for terrorism and for the remnants of al-Qaeda."

Hassan Abbas, author of Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism and a research fellow at Harvard University, says Musharraf has made an effort to crack down on terrorism in areas that don't directly undermine his political base, such as the military actions against al-Qaeda in Waziristan, and Pakistan has arrested some of al-Qaeda's prominent leaders, who "may not be number one or two, but certainly people who are up there in the hierarchy." But even these efforts are in jeopardy now that Musharraf has ended hostilities in Waziristan--largely to placate the all-powerful Pakistani army, which has lost 350 soldiers in this unpopular campaign--and given permission to foreign militants to remain there in return for a vague promise to end incursions into Afghanistan.

The Bush administration's greatest success thus far has come in the area of nonproliferation. Despite Musharraf's refusal to turn over A. Q. Khan--who was arrested two years ago for supplying nuclear materials and know-how to Libya, Iran and North Korea--analysts like Levi say that the United States has been "fairly successful" in securing the Pakistani nuclear program. But the details of the arrangement remain secret. "I think the U.S.•Pakistan cooperation in nuclear related issues is much closer than what is publicly known--primarily due to the U.S. concerns about the safety of Pakistani nuclear assets," Abbas says. "This aspect is not discussed openly because [such] cooperation will be interpreted in Pakistan as compromising [their sovereignty]."

In fact, very little is transparent about the nature of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, or the kind of agreements it entails. As Levi points out, most of what is publicly reported is based more on speculation than fact. The secrecy is both worrying and ironic given Bush's perspective on Iran: "A non-transparent society that is the world's premier state sponsor of terror cannot be allowed to possess the world's most dangerous weapons," he says.

More important, as Abbas argues, the Bush administration is investing heavily in a dictator who is increasingly unable to rein in the very extremists he needs to secure his political future. Not only have groups like the JUI and the jihadis in Kashmir become increasingly independent, but the regime no longer has control over critical regions such as Waziristan and Baluchistan. "This is a very dangerous strategy," Abbas says. "There is no doubt there is going to be blowback."

While the Bush White House's Pakistan policy is undoubtedly flawed, it is also strikingly out of character. An administration best known for its ideological rigidity has been surprisingly pragmatic and subtle in its dealings with Islamabad. The same George W. Bush who is unable to differentiate between Hamas or Hezbollah in the Middle East has been willing in Pakistan to narrowly define terrorism to exclude groups who do not directly threaten U.S. interests--even though many of them have close links to al-Qaeda.

The Bush administration has also been far more willing to deal with the reality of Pakistan's nuclear bomb than Iran's desire to build one in the distant future. "Pakistan already has the bomb. You can't do anything about that," Levi says. "Once the horse has fled, there are a lot more useful things you can do other than shut the barn door."

Critics of the Bush administration's confrontation with Iran have often pointed to Pakistan as an example of its double standard. As Bill Maher told Larry King, "And could we at least have a debate on whether this is an impossibility, that Iran be allowed the nuclear weapon before we invade them? I mean, Pakistan is a Muslim country full of people who want to kill us. And they have a nuclear bomb. Somehow that's OK."

But to accuse George Bush of hypocrisy is to miss the significance of the distinction his administration makes between the two regions. Unlike its heavy-handed Middle East policy, the Bush strategy in South Asia is a tightrope act that balances competing foreign policy objectives: prevent Islamic extremists from gaining control of Pakistan and, more important, its nuclear arsenal; bolster India as a counter-force to Chinese power; and use U.S. influence with Pakistan as a bargaining chip with India. This policy tells us that the administration is willing to use the kind of diplomatic engagement it pretends to disdain to further its goals, which--as U.S. concerns about India and China suggest--are not limited to battling terrorism. What's more, it suggests that the reasons for the Bush administration's military adventurism in the Middle East have little to do with a morally righteous crusade against Islamic terrorists.

In the September/October, 2002, issue of Foreign Affairs, John Ikenberry, the director of the Princeton Project on National Security, argued that those looking for the real motivation for the so-called "war on terror" should look to a 1992 "Defense Policy Guidance" draft penned by Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby. In it, they laid out a "grand strategy" to promote and maintain U.S. global dominance based on military preemption, unilateralism and, most importantly, control of the Middle East: "In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region's oil."

As Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil, told Mother Jones, in this "grand strategy," oil is important not so much as fuel but as the source of global power: "Control over the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan and China. It's having our hand on the spigot."

Control over the Middle East in turn requires eliminating any regime hostile to the United States and its closest ally, Israel. Iran is the enemy not because it is led by Islamist supporters of terrorism with plans to develop a nuclear bomb, but because it is a significant regional power opposed to the Bush administration's plan to "restructure" the Middle East to suit its global ambitions. In contrast, not only has Pakistan allied itself entirely with the Bush administration's war on terror, but Musharraf is now moving toward reinstating diplomatic ties with Israel.

The Bush double standard reveals a foreign policy that is less ideological than imperial. In this, the administration is different from its predecessors only by degrees of its ambition and ruthlessness. As Cirincione reminded NPR listeners, "The Shah wanted to build 20 nuclear reactors--that's what the government says they want to build now--we OK'd it. In fact, we wanted to sell them those reactors. Even when the CIA discovered in the '70s that the Shah was secretly working on a nuclear program, we still OK'd Iran's plans then to open a uranium enrichment facility and a plutonium reprocessing facility. We still went ahead because we said 'It's OK because he's our guy.'"

If the Bush administration succeeds in its outlandish plans for "regime change" in Iran, it may well be every bit as lenient with our new guy in Tehran. Just ask Pervez Musharraf.

About the Author: Lakshmi Chaudhry has been a reporter and an editor for independent publications for more than six years, and is a senior editor at In These Times, where she covers the cross-section of culture and politics.

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