EVERY YEAR there is a great gnashing of teeth as the executive branch and Congress struggle to keep aid flowing to Pakistan even though, under American nonproliferation law, its nuclear program disqualifies it from receiving aid. This year there should be no problem. Pakistan's bomb program is a fact. Further evasions of its own law by the American government are demeaning. The United States should end the aid, cleanly and with minimal regret.

In conditioning aid on nuclear abstinence, the United States was offering countries like Pakistan an attractive alternative -- in aid and in the political and strategic patronage that goes with it. Pakistanis, however, were determined to arm against their mortal rival, India, which itself went nuclear in 1974. They took the aid, and they also took out insurance by working on their own bomb. Eager for Pakistan's cooperation in the Afghan war, the United States let Islamabad have it both ways.

Now Pakistan has the bomb, or something close enough to it to make it feel it has a deterrent in any showdown with India. The strategic equation in the South Asian subcontinent now turns not on the reliability of the United States as a guarantor but on mutual Indian-Pakistani deterrence. It is the only place in the Third World where such a formula obtains.

Given the importance of Afghanistan, was the United States right to downgrade its nonproliferation goals in Pakistan? As the aid ends, let there be no illusions. The United States got service from Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistan got from the United States the extended patronage that allowed it to build its bomb without Indian interference. It built its bomb precisely to stand alone in case the American umbrella some day was folded.

In the 1980s nonproliferation plainly could not compete with the American national interest in containing aggressive Soviet power. In the 1990s Americans are in a better position to move nonproliferation up their list of priorities. Responding to proliferators -- in the first instance to Pakistan -- as law and sound policy dictate is not a sufficient step to show that the United States is serious, but it is a necessary step. From there the country must go on to work with others to restrict nuclear supplies and promote other ways of ensuring security.