News / Asia

Pakistan Rebuffed on Civilian Nuclear Deal For Now

Gary Thomas

The announcement the United States and India have ironed out the final details of their nuclear energy deal comes only days after the first  U.S. high-level strategic dialogue with Pakistan, which made clear it too craves a nuclear energy deal.  The Obama administration did not say yes, but it did not say no.

At the heart of the strategic dialogue was overcoming the trust deficit.  Pakistan continues to suspect the United States sees Pakistan as a partner of convenience to be discarded when its aim of defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida is achieved.  

On the U.S. side, there are many in policy circles who question the depth of Pakistan's anti-terrorism commitment.

U.S. Army War College professor Larry Goodson says healing the rift will take time.

"I think it is sort of like marriage counseling, said Larry Goodson. "If you are in a very estranged relationship, but you have determined that you must improve the relationship, you have got to start somewhere.  And perhaps they tell you to start giving flowers every other day or something.  You have got to start thinking more kindly, projecting more optimism.  I do not think that you can improve an estranged relationship by continuing to have a sort of very pessimistic outlook about where it is likely to end up."

Congressional Research Service South Asia analyst Alan Kronstadt says the strategic dialogue showed a new tone.

"What is happening is that we have now more than a year down the road seen the Obama administration behave in some ways differently with Pakistan and arguably has brought some success in that shifted tone and approach to Pakistan," said Alan Kronstadt. "It is mainly about solidifying, attempting to establish a relationship that will eventually feel like it is based on mutual trust.

The Washington meeting was a dialogue, not a negotiation.  But Larry Goodson says Pakistan felt its recent arrests of top Taliban figures, as well as some military action against militant strongholds along the border, was enough to press some advantage.

"Regardless of the motivation for the arrests, it does seem to me to be clear that the Pakistani leadership is trying to leverage the fact of the arrests to sort of strengthen the strategic dialogue, or their bargaining position in the strategic dialogue, " he said.

The U.S. pledged new aid for Pakistan's energy, water, agriculture and educational sectors, and Washington promised to speed up reimbursements owed to Pakistan for counterinsurgency operations.

But what Pakistan really wants is a civilian nuclear power deal similar to the one India got from the United States.  Pakistan suffers from acute energy shortages.  But when asked about the issue by reporters, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton deflected the question.

"We have said that we will listen to and engage with our Pakistani partners on whatever issues the delegation raises," said Hilary Clinton. "We are committed to helping Pakistan meet its real energy needs."

Alan Kronstadt says the Obama administration is offering a more polite response than would have come from the preceding administration.

"It is a change that you acknowledge," he said. "The Bush Administration would usually flatly and patently reject that kind of idea.  But now that we have a relationship that is changing in tone and substance, you do not necessarily strike down a friend's request so abruptly.  So, whether or not it is realistic in the foreseeable future, I think diplomatically we are seeing a change in how the United States responds to that kind of request."

But Larry Goodson suspects something more substantive may in the works behind the scenes, but it will not be the same as India's bargain.

"The press statements out of India's government, and out of Pakistan's government, and out of the American government all seem to suggest that there will not be the same sort of deal," said Goodson. "But that there will be some sort of a deal for Pakistan, probably more of a secret deal or an understanding that does not put them formally on the same level as India, but informally or privately or secretly one that allows them to move forward on this civilian nuclear program."

The technology proliferation of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan would make it politically difficult to sell the idea of a Pakistan nuclear deal in the United States and in the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna, the multi-national body tasked with controlling nuclear-weapons-related materials.   

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