Last year, Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf pardoned his former nuclear weapons program chief Abdul Qadeer Khan for masterminding a global black market trade that delivered advanced nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. For more than a decade, the Khan network secretly transferred some of the most sensitive technology, including uranium-enrichment devices and, in the case of Libya, even design and engineering plans for nuclear bombs.
U.S. officials claim there is no evidence of official Pakistani government involvement, but they also acknowledge they still do not understand the full extent of the Khan network or whether it is shut down. New evidence has recently emerged that Pakistan continues to advance its own nuclear program through illegal means.
Yet, even as Musharraf continues to shield Khan from outside interrogation, President George W. Bush announced last month that he wants to supply Pakistan with F-16 jets to facilitate Musharraf's continued support in fighting al Qaeda. As a counterbalance, Bush has held out the possibility of selling advanced fighter jets and missile defenses to Pakistan's longtime rival, India.
The Bush administration's F-16 decision not only symbolizes Washington's abandonment of meaningful efforts to curb Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, but it contributes to the escalating South Asian arms race. The move further undermines the credibility of Bush's nonproliferation policies and global efforts to reinforce the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which neither India nor Pakistan have joined.
U.S. policymakers first began to overlook Islamabad's nuclear activities when they sought Pakistan's support to counter the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But with the end of the Cold War and the steady advance of the Pakistani bomb effort, Washington began to condition its support in order to push Pakistan toward a more responsible nuclear policy.
It was President George H. W. Bush who, in 1990, stopped earlier deliveries of F-16s to Pakistan by invoking the U.S. law that blocks military assistance to Pakistan if it acquires nuclear weapons. At least three years earlier, Pakistan had completed its quest to build the bomb with the help of Khan's clandestine network and foreign technology.
Following India and Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests, Washington imposed further sanctions and urged the nuclear rivals to refrain from deploying their arsenals, join the nuclear test ban treaty, halt the production of fissile material, and improve export controls. Although India and Pakistan waited out the sanctions and resisted most of the U.S. arms control overtures, these and earlier nonproliferation efforts tempered the South Asian arms race.
The current U.S. policy favoring South Asian arms procurement rather than restraint is based on the erroneous assumptions that the nuclear rivalry can be managed and U.S. military technology is needed to buy "strategic partnerships" with New Delhi and Islamabad. Under this formula, Indian and Pakistani nuclear forces will be neither minimal nor stable. Certain U.S. arms transfers can lead each side to make countermove after countermove.
Pakistan says the F-16s will help it close the conventional weapons gap with India. However, Pakistan will likely outfit its new F-16s with nuclear weapons and base them in hardened shelters to reduce the vulnerability of its nuclear-armed forces to Indian air attacks. India, in turn, will surely seek U.S. assistance to improve its early warning and air strike capabilities.
India's strategic doctrine already calls for deploying a larger number of nuclear weapons on missiles, submarines, and aircraft, in part to counter Pakistan's nuclear-capable missile force. Future U.S. missile defense cooperation with India would likely prompt Pakistan to deploy a larger number of its nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
As Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons capabilities have increased, crises have persisted and the consequences of war have grown. Although tensions between India and Pakistan have eased, it was as recently as 2002 that the two states were on the verge of their fourth war. The United States has a strategic interest in maintaining close relations with both India and Pakistan, but it can and should do so without exacerbating their nuclear arms buildup.
Although Khan may be under house arrest, there are disturbing signs that the regime continues to use the black market to improve its nuclear capability. An ongoing U.S. Department of Commerce investigation has found that in 2003 a front company with close ties to the Pakistani government made clandestine purchases of U.S. high-tech components used in nuclear weapons in violation of U.S. laws.
Pakistan's support for anti-terrorism can be maintained without sacrificing the effort to stop the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons. The United States should use its aid to support Pakistan's economic and political development and should condition further military assistance on Islamabad's support for nuclear restraint. At a minimum, U.S. officials must leverage aid to win full cooperation from Pakistan in stopping nuclear smuggling and to certify that it has finally ended all black market nuclear activity.