ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, NOV. 30 -- Rising anti-American sentiment here is complicating efforts by the Bush administration to find a compromise that would permit resumption of $560 million in annual military and economic aid to Pakistan suspended in October because of Islamabad's attempt to build a nuclear bomb.
Talks between U.S. officials and Pakistan's new rightist government about Islamabad's nuclear program are expected to begin soon. But while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said this week that he welcomes discussions, interviews with Pakistani government and military officials indicate that they are in no mood to make a deal with Washington.
Ejaz Azim, a retired lieutenant general and former ambassador to the United States, said senior military officers agree that "there will be no unilateral compromise" by Pakistan on its nuclear program, as demanded by the United States. Azim said the military has already initiated plans to secure alternative sources of military supplies under the assumption that U.S. aid will not be resumed.
Said a senior army officer, "I don't think any government of Pakistan is going to change its basic nuclear policy, whether it is for energy or national security."
At least some Bush administration officials hope to overcome such attitudes by reaching a deal in which Pakistan does not appear to be bowing to U.S. pressure or forsaking its nuclear deterrent against India. In this scenario, Islamabad would take steps privately to reorganize its nuclear program to comply with U.S. law -- which prohibits aid unless the president certifies that Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device -- while maintaining an ambiguous public posture about its nuclear capabilities.
Pakistani officials and diplomats agree that such a compromise could be achieved. But on the Pakistani side, a popular resurgent nationalism, misgivings about the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf crisis and resentments about the decades-old U.S. alliance have contributed to an angry and defiant stance as talks get underway.
Among other things, Pakistanis deeply resent what they see as the discriminatory nature of U.S. law, which pressures Islamabad over its nuclear program but makes no similar demands on countries such as India and Israel.
U.S. officials have said for years that Pakistan is close to possessing a nuclear bomb, but until this year the Bush and Reagan administrations certified to Congress that Islamabad did not have an assembled device.
Tensions between Pakistan and India last spring over the disputed territory of Kashmir provoked Islamabad to step up its nuclear program by enriching uranium to levels necessary to make a bomb, according to sources here. That apparently led President Bush to suspend aid on Oct. 1.
Pakistan is vulnerable to the U.S. aid cutoff, particularly the suspension of military assistance. Overmatched in manpower and resources by its rival India, Pakistan has depended on sophisticated U.S. equipment, especially aircraft, to deter a conventional Indian attack. If the aid suspension continues, Pakistan will be deprived of 71 F-16 fighter jets on order as well as spare parts for F-16s, Cobra attack helicopters and other equipment it already possesses.
Alternative sources of spare parts for F-16s and Cobras are few and expensive, Pakistani military officers and diplomats said. A lack of spares could lead within months to diminished effectiveness for the country's air force, they said.
Economically, Pakistan appears to face less immediate pressure. Rising oil prices and fears of a recession in Western nations that import Pakistani products threaten Islamabad's new leaders. But the suspended U.S. aid generally funds specific development projects in Pakistan and is not seen as crucial to economic stability. In addition, Pakistan has a relatively low external debt load and lately has been borrowing commercially to help pay for imports such as oil.
European countries and Japan -- which provides more economic aid to Pakistan than does the United States -- are likely to continue assistance unless Islamabad begins a nuclear testing program or transfers nuclear technology to another country such as Iran or Iraq, Western diplomats said.
The International Monetary Fund also is expected to ignore the U.S. aid suspension when it decides early next year whether to continue lending to Pakistan, although a minority of U.S. officials interviewed said Washington might pressure the IMF to curtail aid to Islamabad because of the nuclear issue.
On the U.S. side, talks about Pakistan's nuclear program are complicated by a vocal section of Democrats in Congress, including sympathizers of ousted prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who argue that in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the time has come to force Islamabad to abandon its quest for a nuclear bomb. Because the Bush administration may need to win the support of these Democrats for its policy in the gulf, it may be less willing or able to oppose their stand on the Pakistani nuclear issue, some U.S. officials said.
Bush administration officials who hope to forge a compromise with Islamabad are anxious to avoid any impression that Pakistan would have to drastically reverse its nuclear program to qualify for resumed U.S. aid. But since the details of Pakistan's nuclear program are among the world's worst-kept secrets and are regularly discussed in the Pakistani press, it may be difficult for Sharif's new government to accept resumed assistance without conceding that it has turned back the clock on the country's efforts to build a bomb.
Such a concession would appear to be politically impossible for Sharif, who preached ardent nationalism, self-reliance and the virtues of having a bomb during his successful campaign for office.