ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Less than three years after Pakistan detonated its first nuclear device, a new Republican administration has taken over in Washington.
Under normal circumstances, a Third World developing country may not feel compelled to obsess about who is taking over at the White House. But Pakistan, as one of the world’s newest nuclear powers, finds itself interested in the new administration’s policy choices, mainly because those choices may determine its own future.
Since 1998, when Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests in response to nuclear tests by India, Islamabad has been under pressure from the United States to accept new global nuclear safeguards.
While in the past few months it has become clear to many Pakistani officials that the intensity of U.S. pressure for Islamabad to accept the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — the global instrument to prevent nuclear testing — has eased, other issues have cropped up.
The U.S. continues to seek Pakistan’s cooperation in assisting with the extradition of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi militant who lives in exile in Afghanistan and is wanted by Washington in connection with the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Washington’s other concern over Pakistan is the state of the latter’s relations with India, with whom it has fought three wars. Never before in the 54-year history of the two countries have they faced each other armed with nuclear weapons.
In light of these challenges, the obvious question for many Pakistanis is: Can relations with the Bush administration be any different from those with the Clinton administration, which repeatedly expressed its concern over some of the issues facing Pakistan. But Pakistan needs to reconcile itself with the vital policy choices that it makes in three areas and their potential for future relations with the U.S.
* First is Pakistan’s ability to stabilize its outlook, both in the political and the economic realms. Pakistan is a country whose entry into the 21st century as a state ruled by the military worries many outside observers. Furthermore, Pakistan’s economic problems add to the image of a country locked away and isolated in a potentially precarious state. Improved future relations with the outside world, including the U.S. can be guaranteed only by the country’s success in both of these areas.
* Second, Pakistan faces several foreign-policy challenges in its relations with most of its immediate neighbors as well as with friends farther afield. Many outside Pakistan are concerned about the activism displayed by the country’s groups of Islamic nationalists, who are eager to spread their ideals and their activism around the world. But that activism has unleashed security concerns for many countries outside Pakistan. As long as Pakistan remains the focus of these kinds of security concerns, it is hard to imagine its present predicament ending.
* Third, Pakistan remains at the center of international concern over the future of Afghanistan, the scene of the last Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. While Pakistan finds it difficult to comply with U.S. demands for help in the extradition of bin Laden, it could certainly do a lot more to promote the peace process in Afghanistan, where the Taliban government is still locked in a prolonged battle with its adversaries.
In recent months, an estimated 170,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan in an attempt to escape the effects of this year’s devastating drought, which promises only to exacerbate Afghanistan’s extreme impoverishment. The latest Afghan refugees are yet another addition to the almost 5 million Afghans who fled to Pakistan and Iran in the ’80s with the outbreak of the war that followed the Soviet invasion of their country.
While Pakistan is under pressure to make progress on all three of these fronts, its position is helped by two factors that are specific to its own profile.
First, being a country with nuclear capability has enhanced Pakistan’s diplomatic position in some ways, despite the condemnation that it received after its 1998 tests. The dilemma for the U.S. is that its relations with Pakistan are constrained by the need to keep channels of communication open with Islamabad, irrespective of the extent of its displeasure. For Pakistan, the challenge is to use its status as one of the world’s newest nuclear powers to its advantage.
Second, Pakistan has the advantage of its geographic position, although this can work to its peril as well as its benefit. While locked in a long-standing dispute with India over the division of the predominantly Muslim state of Kashmir, Pakistan remains an important country due to its proximity to China and Iran. For the U.S., the future of relations with those two countries contains many elements of uncertainty, a fact that has prompted some in Washington to recognize the importance of long-term ties with Pakistan.
The primary challenge for Pakistan in its future dealings with the U.S. is to try and overcome its weaknesses while making its potential strength work to its advantage.
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