ISLAMABAD — Weeks of adverse publicity surrounding the alleged exchange of Pakistan’s nuclear knowhow for North Korea’s missile technology has a familiar ring for South Asia’s second-largest country. Many of the latest allegations have emerged from American newspaper sources. Although U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said he sees no reason for U.S. sanctions against Pakistan, his remarks indicate he has indeed warned Pakistan about the “consequences” of contacts with North Korea.

Pakistan went through a similar episode in the 1980s. While, on one hand, the regime of the late Gen. Zia ul-Haq emerged as the closest ally of the United States in confronting Soviet troops that had occupied Afghanistan, periodic leaks claimed that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons — to the distress of the so-called nonproliferation lobby. Then too, like today, a military regime ruled the country, one that had a close alliance with the Reagan administration.

In 1990, after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan and Washington’s strategic objectives ended, the U.S. slapped Pakistan with a harsh set of economic and military sanctions driven by the Pressler amendment, which forbade aid to the country if there was proof that it had acquired nuclear technology.

Eight years later in 1998, when Pakistan decided to test its nuclear weapon for the first time after neighboring India conducted its second series of tests since 1974, Islamabad was slapped with further sanctions. Yet, even amid the reality of Pakistan’s nuclear program, the choice by Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s government to become Washington’s ally in the fight against terror has reversed the tide of punitive pressures.

Recent allegations via leaks to U.S. newspapers are viewed by senior Pakistani officials as a powerful reminder of an era when proliferation concerns were set aside by Washington. Pakistan’s new foreign minister has strongly denied the allegations and has offered to work with neighboring India toward a framework of nuclear restraint. The offer came after the Foreign Ministry in Delhi called for an investigation of Pakistan’s connections with North Korea.

Says Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri: “Pakistan is a responsible country. We have faithfully followed the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) and relied only on domestic means to safeguard our interests.”

Pakistan’s prolonged military standoff this year with India underscored the risks of the world’s newest nuclear powers confronting each other with horrific consequences. Although the evidence of exactly what Pakistan acquired from North Korea is still murky, it is clear that Islamabad has built up its missile system to ensure a delivery capability for its nuclear arsenal.

Yet Western experts familiar with Pakistan’s capability acknowledge that Islamabad remains far from being able to independently manufacture a credible delivery system. Pakistan’s search for such a system — aimed at deterring a larger neighbor with which it has fought three wars — ultimately drives up the level of tension in the region. The decision by the U.S. in 1990 to block conventional military supplies to Pakistan only forced Islamabad to rely more on its nuclear arsenal.

Amid the global focus on the possibility that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, two issues weigh heavily on the future of nuclear arms development in South Asia. The first is the future of the dispute between India and Pakistan over the divided state of Kashmir. Global concerns over Indo-Pakistani tensions have centered on putting out periodic fires, such as the confrontation between the two this year, without coming to grips with the underlying political discord. Unless a credible peace process resolves the dispute over Kashmir and sets the course for a new era of peace between the two countries, controversies over nuclear and other strategic affairs will continue to arise periodically.

The second issue is the decline of Pakistan’s conventional military capability. As a result, Pakistan has found itself relying increasingly on the potential of its nuclear and missile arsenal as a defense shield against India.

The latest controversy involving Pakistan and North Korea is not likely to develop into a broader rift between Pakistan and the U.S. as long as Islamabad retains a central role in the fight against terror. But if the U.S. ultimately takes the punitive route against Pakistan, as it has done before, there can be no assurances of a better security environment in South Asia.

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