Tuesday, March 30, 2010




    For a country that aspires to join the ranks of Great Powers in the not too distant a future, India's prickly reaction to reports and statements that the US could sign a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, as well as its quiet satisfaction, if not relief, that no such deal was signed, was quite unnecessary, more so because it deflected attention from the more substantial aspects of the US-Pakistan relationship which in the near future will impinge upon India's vital security interests.

A cool contemplation of the existing diplomatic and strategic realities should have been enough for Indian media and policymakers to know that a civilian nuclear deal for Pakistan was not on offer, at least not for the foreseeable future. The only difference was that unlike the past, when the US would unceremoniously rebuff Pakistan's oft expressed desire for a civilian nuclear deal similar to the one that the US signed with India, this time around the US was willing to hear the Pakistanis out during the latest round of Strategic Dialogue between the two countries. So far this is the only concession that Pakistan has got from the US as far as a civilian nuclear deal is concerned.

Pakistan wants a civilian nuclear deal not so much because it will solve the debilitating energy crisis that the country faces, but more because it will fulfil Pakistan's obsessive quest for strategic parity with India by accepting it as a nuclear weapons state. The legitimacy that such recognition will give to Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme will not only allay Pakistan's fears of being deprived of its nuclear assets but also end the technology denial regimes that it currently faces. More than anything else, it is this strategic dimension of a civilian nuclear deal that Pakistanis hanker for. After all, it makes very little sense for Pakistan wanting a nuclear deal to get over its massive energy deficit today because, even if the civilian nuclear deal comes through in the next few years, the first nuclear power plant will not become operational for another 10, maybe 15, years.

Quite aside the natural proclivity of Pakistanis to overstate and overplay their strengths, and understate and underplay their weaknesses, even the most delusional Pakistani would know that a civilian nuclear deal is not quite within reach. Despite the growing dependence of the US on Pakistan to sort out Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the US will be willing to go so far as to reward Pakistan with a nuclear deal. Offering such a deal to Pakistan can neither be justified on economic grounds, nor on strategic grounds and is certainly going to be very difficult for any US administration to sell politically at home and diplomatically abroad.

In any case, if the Obama administration ever decided to sign a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan, it will take years before such a deal can actually become operational, during which time many things could change in the relationship between the US and Pakistan which in turn could kill the deal. But even if no such thing happens, and the US stakes in Pakistan remain strong, a civilian nuclear deal will have to traverse through torturous negotiations with some very tough bargaining, not to mention intrusive conditionalities. Given Pakistan's proliferation record and the fears over the security of its nuclear assets, it would be highly unrealistic to imagine that the conditions imposed on Pakistan will be exactly the same as those imposed on India. And the tough conditions that are likely to be imposed on Pakistan could easily become a deal-breaker.

Assuming that the US and Pakistani administration do manage to strike a deal, the agreement will then have to be passed through the US Congress, which is easier said than done. If India, despite its impeccable track record and its reputation as a responsible state, faced a lot of opposition over the nuclear deal in the US Congress, what are the chances of a country like Pakistan managing to get the Congress to pass a nuclear deal? The Ayatollah's of non-proliferation in the US are going to mount such massive pressure that it could be well near impossible to get the Congress to vote for a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan.

Even if the US Congress allows the deal, it will then have to go before IAEA and the NSG. Had it not been for the personal intervention of George W Bush, the Indian deal might never been have passed in the NSG. Can Obama afford to expend his personal and political capital in the NSG for rewarding one of the worst proliferators with a nuclear deal, especially when he is trying to sell the concept of 'Global Zero' to rest of the world? There are likely to be many NSG countries that will oppose such a deal for Pakistan, more so because there is very little economic incentive for these countries in terms of selling civilian nuclear equipment to the Pakistanis.

In the case of India, the prospect of lucrative contracts for setting up nuclear power plants was a huge attraction for some of the important nuclear suppliers to push through the Indian deal. But given the state of Pakistan's economy, the prospect of getting any sort of return from investment is next to negligible. Add to this the generally hostile environment towards Westerners, and the spread of Islamist terrorism throughout the country. Under these circumstances, there is hardly any other country or company that will want to sell nuclear equipment or set up a nuclear plant in Pakistan, except perhaps for the Chinese, who have larger strategic interests in Pakistan. And, if this is the way things are going to play out, why would the Americans want to give Pakistan a deal which will actually allow the Chinese to eventually replace the US in terms of influence in Pakistan?

Clearly then, there never was any nuclear deal on offer, only a readiness on the part of the US to hear the Pakistani sales pitch for such a deal and that too because the US didn't want to rub the Pakistanis the wrong way at this juncture. The Americans perhaps also wanted to avoid giving wind to the huge anti-American propaganda campaign that has been unleashed in Pakistan, partly by the Islamists but largely by the Pakistan army through 'embedded' media personnel to pressurise the Americans into giving ever more concessions and opening their coffers for Pakistan. In a sense, the Pakistani game-plan has been successful because by creating hype around a possible nuclear deal (which they never expected to come through in the first place), they have managed to pressure the Americans into addressing many of their other strategic, economic and military concerns.

More than the nuclear deal, it is the massive transfers of conventional weapons to the Pakistanis and the other political and diplomatic assurances that the US has made to the Pakistanis that should worry India. By bolstering Pakistan's conventional military capability (not its anti-terror capability) the US has ended up emboldening Pakistan to think that it can once again ratchet up tension with India by brandishing its newly acquired weapons as well as unleashing the jihadist terror groups. The Pakistan army would now be calculating that the US is so beholden to them that it will turn a complete blind eye to the export of terror into India. And in the event of things getting out of hand, the US will pressure India to back off, like it did in the 1980's when the Pakistanis sponsored terrorism in Indian Punjab.

What is more, by feting the Pakistan army chief, the US has done great disservice to the cause of democracy in Pakistan. The Pakistan army will now use rising tension with India to further strengthen its stranglehold over the politics of the country and the civilian politicians will try to curry favour with the military by taking a hard line against India. With history repeating itself in Pakistan, the future of Indo-Pak relations seems rather dismal.


    <1350 Words>                    30th March, 2010



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