ISLAMABAD -- With the revival of American fears of Pakistan's alleged covert quest for a nuclear capability, there are new questions here over whether Washington will go to the extent of an aid cutoff. In the past, Pakistan was subjected to such treatment. American aid, cut off in 1978-79, was only resumed in 1981 after American policy-makers rediscovered Pakistan's "geopolitical importance" following the overthrow of the shah in Iran and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.
Despite an otherwise cozy relationship between Washington and Islamabad, the nuclear issue casts recurring shadows. U.S. policy has alternated between pressures (cutting aid), threats (in 1979 the United States, through a newspaper leak, was said to contemplate ''disabling'' the Kahouta nuclear enrichment facility) and bribes (in 1976, Henry Kissinger offered 110 A-7 jets to Pakistan were it to forgo its nuclear program; more recently, the expiring $3.2 billion and the proposed $4.02 billion aid programs have been perceived as partial inducements). Meanwhile, the change of regime in 1977, from the civilian Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Gen. Zia ul-Haq, did not deter Pakistan from pursuing what is seen here as a vital national interest.
U.S. policy toward Pakistan's nuclear program has had little credibility with the government in Islamabad or influential sections of public opinion. Three aspects of this policy are particularly galling.
First, Pakistan's nuclear program is primarily a response to India's own nuclear ambitions, which were demonstrated in 1974 by its ''peaceful nuclear explosion." Pakistan only wishes to seek a credible nuclear deterrent against its principal adversary, whose intentions toward its smaller and weaker neighbor are suspect in the view of most Pakistanis. Pakistan has fought three wars with India since independence in 1947, and it is the only Third World country to be partitioned since World War II. The 1971 Bangladesh war, which saw a ruthless coordination of Indian military moves and Soviet diplomacy, remains traumatic. Pakistanis feel the United States is unable to empathize with these abiding Pakistani concerns, which no amount of conventional weaponry can allay and which are accentuated by the inability of India and Pakistan to develop a friction-free relationship as neighbors.
Second, Pakistanis notice an element of American double standard on the nuclear issue. India, which exploded its nuclear device way back in 1974, and Israel, which is generally assumed to have bombs in its basement, are somehow exempt from U.S. punitive actions. Pakistan, a close American ally that has not tested a weapon, is periodically pushed around. Neither the Symington Amendment nor the Solarz Amendment has been targeted against India and Israel. In effect, Washington winks at their nuclear capability and treats Pakistan, whose ''crime'' is no worse, differently.
Third, apparently there is, deep down, an unstated assumption in the U.S. attitude. Pakistanis discern a hint of moral arrogance and a certain degree of self-righteousness in Western, particularly American, concerns regarding proliferation. These concerns denote a widely held private perception: ''It's fine for us to have nuclear weapons because we're more balanced and mature, but these weapons would be dangerous in your hands because you are too emotional and immature.'' Behind the recurring theme of the Pakistani ''Islamic bomb'' lie images of Gadhafi's ''madness'' and Khomeini's ''terrorism,'' all of which conjure up visions of the Crusades in the Western mind.
U.S. policy-makers need to understand the dangerous consequences should Washington decide to punish Pakistan with an aid cut. A cut would destabilize a weak civilian government. As for the impact on Islamabad-Washington ties, it won't take much for the generous Uncle Sam to be transformed into the ugly American in Pakistani popular perception. Already, the United States is seen as an unreliable ally.
Washington should realize Pakistan, too, has options. It should not be pushed so hard that the cumulative result is counterproductive to U.S. objectives. No regime in Pakistan has so faithfully served American interests as Zia's. It has been a willing conduit of covert American arms to the mujaheddin battling the Soviet army in Afghanistan -- at great cost to Pakistan's internal cohesion and socioeconomic stability. In a volatile region where even such puny pro-West sheikdoms as the United Arab Emirates say ''no'' to American warships, Zia welcomes them. Should the United States drive Pakistan up against the wall, Islamabad could hit back by making up with the Soviets on Afghanistan, moving closer to Iran and China and defending its security through a region-based foreign policy rather than a policy tied to the apron-strings of a distant godfather.
For the future, the United States has to cope with two realities in South Asia. The first is a Pakistan whose nuclear capability serves as a deterrent against India. The second is a nuclearized South Asia where a new ''balance of terror'' between India and Pakistan will maintain parity and peace. If the bomb can stabilize Soviet-American ties or help maintain peace in Europe, why not in South Asia too?
The United States also needs to determine its own priorities for this strategically important region. A better understanding of Pakistan's security concerns would help Washington promote its interests throughout Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf. Further arm-twisting of Pakistan on the nuclear issue would damage America's own interests in the area.
The writer was editor of the newspaper The Muslim in Islamabad.