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Washington is reaping what
it helped sow in Pakistan



Jonathan Power

February 16, 2004

LONDON - When last week Pakistan's chief nuclear weapons' scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, admitted his role in sharing nuclear weapons' technology with rogue regimes he not only highlighted the wilful blindness of his own government to his activities but in effect that of the U.S. as well.

It is the old, sad story, of the powers-that-be in Washington not seeing the big picture, of trying to take short cuts for the sake of political expediency and, in the Cold War days, of having an ultra-reactive reflex to all and everything Moscow did.

In April 1979 the Carter Administration, convinced that Pakistan was secretly building a nuclear weapon, suspended military aid. But that December it reversed itself, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and persuaded Congress to authorize a large arms aid program. For the next decade, in return for Pakistan's help in building up the mujahadin fighters in Afghanistan, who later turned into Osama bin Laden's storm troopers, Washington put its telescope to its blind eye.

It was an ill conceived policy from the very beginning. Why, after the Soviet invasion, was it considered that Pakistan had Washington by the tail and could get away with anything? Surely it should have been the other way round, with Pakistan on its knees begging for all the help it could get on any terms America chose? Pakistan didn't want the Soviets in Afghanistan for its own good reasons and, indeed, began supplying aid to the mujahadin before the first American shipments arrived.

Washington had whipped itself into hysteria over the Soviet move with strategists arguing, in the over the top manner that was used in the run up to war with Iraq, that if Moscow was not stopped the Red Army Blitzkrieg was going to keep on rolling right across Afghanistan, down through Iran, and up to the oil terminals on the Persian Gulf.

No matter that in reality Soviet troops found it difficult to get past the third mountain range after Kabul, and if their real purpose in entering Afghanistan was to reach the Gulf and the apparently much-needed "warm water" port they could have driven directly through Iran without detouring through inhospitable Afghanistan.

Moreover, America's embrace of Pakistan had dire domestic repercussions, triggering within Pakistan the rise of religious extremism, until then a moderate Muslim state. Facing domestic resistance to its alliance with the U.S. the regime of Mohammed Zia ul Haq forged alliances with Sunni extremists groups in a counterproductive attempt to undermine its secular opponents. It led to the distortion of Pakistan's legal system and provided the clergy with unprecedented access to political power. This was the time that the government began to pour in funds to the madrasas, the religious schools, which indoctrinated and trained recruits for not just the military's interventionist policies in Afghanistan but also in Indian Kashmir.

Only in 1990 did President George Bush senior end the annual White House lie of giving assurances to Congress that all was well in Pakistan's nuclear laboratories. Military sales were terminated. But then a short four years later the Clinton administration developed the endearing notion of "grandfathering". The idea was that the Administration couldn't do much about the situation it inherited and as long as Pakistan promised to cap (but not roll back) its current nuclear program, Washington would authorize the sale of state-of-the-art F16s (that could be reconfigured to carry nuclear weapons).By then, believe it or not, Washington had good evidence that Pakistan was helping Iran develop its bomb.

Enter India. In probably the most foolish decision ever made in Indian politics the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided in 1998 to go public with India's secret nuclear weapons' program and tested its first nuclear bomb. Shortly after Pakistan did the same.

Washington reacted once again. All aid to both Pakistan and India was suspended. Later, President Clinton even refused to shake General Pervez  Musharraf's hand when they met. Washington was aghast at the coup he had engineered, the world's first in a nuclear-armed nation.

But September 11th changed everything. Washington needed Pakistan again and indeed Musharraf felt he had no choice but to fall into line on the threat of severe punishment. Yet within months Pakistan cleverly got Washington by the tail again, or so it appears. In 2002 Washington learnt that a Pakistani plane was picking up missile components in North Korea, presumably in a barter deal for nuclear weapons technology. But nothing was done to rock the relationship with Musharraf. Now once more, despite the new revelations, nothing appears to be being done.

Washington's options in punishing Pakistan seemingly are now foreclosed, as long as the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban continues. It is a tragedy that today's U.S. administration is reaping the whirlwind from mistakes made by its predecessors. But in other areas of policy are not similar myopic decisions laying up demons that will ambush future administrations?


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"




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