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Pakistan Uncertain About Relationship with U.S.


U.S. assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher begins a visit today to Pakistan, though he may have reason not to expect the warmest of receptions. Pakistan is a key ally in the war on terror, but there's deep anger over the state of relations with the U.S.; especially over a nuclear deal that Washington is forging with Pakistan's rival, India.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Islamabad.

Ms. TASNIN ASLAM (Spokesperson, Foreign Ministry, Pakistan): There has been a perception in Pakistan, at the public level, that U.S. is not reliable friend. They see this deal as one more evidence of that.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

That's Pakistani government spokesperson Tasnin Aslam. She's talking about a deal some see as a fundamental change in South Asia's geopolitical landscape. If approved by the U.S. Congress, the deal would allow the United States to supply India with nuclear fuel and technology, ending decades of international sanctions.

Pakistanis, who fought three wars with India, are deeply unhappy, says Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.

Mr. SHEIKH RASHID AHMED (Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Pakistan): Surely, 100 percent people are against this. There is not a single one percent people who are supporting this issue.

REEVES: Pakistan's military leader, Pervez Musharraf, is often accused of not doing enough to rein in Islamist militants. Sheikh Rashid insists Musharraf's done all he can in the war on terror, facing down widespread anti-Americanism on Pakistan's streets. Hundreds of suspects have been captured. These include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of al-Qaida's top men whose thought to have provided crucial information to interrogators.

Mr. AHMED: We have sacrifices hundred and hundreds our soldiers. We have delivered the Khalid Sheik. We have sent in our all 70,000 troops on the Afghan border. And I believe that due to this decision, the Pakistani nation is in shock.

Mr. HAMID MIR (Host, Capitol Talk, Pakistan): A salaama lekum and hello. I am Hamid Mir with Capitol Talk. The future of U.S.--Pakistan relations turned into a big question mark, after the recent visit of President Bush to South Asia.

REEVES: The souring of relations with the U.S. is dominating Pakistan's media. U.S. officials are trying to smooth the waters. On GEO-TV, Ambassador Ryan Crocker assures the audience the nuclear deal with India is nothing to worry about.

Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador, Pakistan): First, it is restricted exclusively to civilian nuclear facilities in helping India develop power alternatives.

REEVES: American and Indian government officials are at the same time selling the deal in the U.S., in the hopes of winning congressional approval. The Bush administration says India's nuclear industry, though not its atomic weapons program, will be under tighter safeguards. The deal's opponents see the agreement as a possibly fatal blow to the international non-proliferation system. They warn it could allow India to build more atomic warheads more rapidly. They predict a South Asian arms race. Though at a recent presentation promoting the deal, U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said the U.S. is working to prevent this.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (U.S. Under Secretary of State): It's going to be very important that India and Pakistan restrain any sense of competition in the nuclear weapons field. And we, frankly, feel a responsibility because of this agreement, and because we're friends with both, to make that a part of our discussions with both of them, individually and collectively.

REEVES: But it's hard to find anyone in Pakistan who thinks an arms race can be avoided.

Mr. RASHID RAHMAN (Editor, Post Newspaper, Pakistan): The insecurity that Pakistan feels in a more enhanced manner now, because of this Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, I think they will increase. And I think Pakistan will take steps. There is very much a real threat of a new arms race, and even more alarmingly, a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent. I don't think this deal helps.

REEVES: That's Rashid Rahman, editor of The Post newspaper in Lahore. This year, Pakistan increased military spending by a billion dollars. Some say the money will be better spent on Pakistan's social needs, for example, a decent education system, as an alternative for those Islamic religious schools preaching anti-Westernism. An arms race means more money would go on bombs. Though Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group, a critic of the deal, says that would happen anyway.

Ms. SAMINA AHMED (Director, International Crisis Group): To assume that money saved from the national budget, if it wasn't going to be spent on arms, was going to be spent on education isn't necessarily correct. And certainly in the Pakistan case, it hasn't been correct on any military government.

REEVES: So far, the India-Pakistan peace process is inching forward. But Pakistani political analyst Dr. Tahir Amin feels it may not be resilient enough to survive for long, given the beleaguered mood that's taken hold among Pakistanis.

Dr. TAHIR AMIN (Political Analyst, Pakistan): They feel embarrassed and alienated. They feel that somehow United States has let them down. You could see the reversal of the peace process anytime.

Dr. PERVEZA HOODBHOY (Physics Professor, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad): I'm Perveza Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

REEVES: This man is one of Pakistan's most vocal opponents of nuclear weapons, including his own country's arsenal.

Dr. HOODBHOY: My predecessors were responsible for making the bomb. Some of them, then subsequently, felt what they had done was wrong. And so, I feel that I belong to that tradition, in the sense these are immoral weapons. And perhaps, physicists have the primary responsibility in fighting against them.

REEVES: That same world also produced A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan's atomic bomb but also, the network, which sold secret nuclear technology to Iran and others. Khan's activities are one reason the U.S. isn't offering Pakistan a deal like India's. American officials say they're confident the network shutdown, but they still haven't had access to Khan who's under house arrest. A punishment, which Hoodbhoy says is less than he deserves.

Dr. HOODBHOY: This man should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity because I believe that selling nuclear materials, with the ultimate purpose of any country making nuclear bombs, is a criminal activity.

REEVES: Hoodbhoy says he's worried about the effect the U.S.-India nuclear deal would have on the world's non-proliferation rules.

Dr. HOODBHOY: I do believe that there could be friendship between the United States and India. It doesn't have to be by treading upon such sacred principles. After all, the NPT is dead after this if this nuclear deal does go through.

REEVES: If the deal does go through, Pakistan's Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed says Islamabad will turn to the Chinese.

Mr. AHMED: Our commitment with the China and friendship will be more strengthened, and people in Pakistan saying openly in the media that China is the only friend to whom we can trust.

REEVES: Does that mean Beijing will now seek to supply far more nuclear technology to Pakistan, following the precedent set by the U.S. with India? The answer says Secretary Burns is no.

Mr. BURNS: But the one argument that I simply can't understand is this argument. The administration has now opened up Pandora's Box. If we make this exceptional deal for India, what's to prevent China from asking the international community to make a similar deal for Pakistan? The answer is the international community would never agree to it.

REEVES: Whether the international community will agree to the U.S.'s deal with India still isn't certain. While negotiations continue, so will Pakistan's public expressions of dismay. But some here say, public posturing not withstanding, that there are serious questions; why strike a nuclear deal with India if it makes South Asia more dangerous, they ask, and the war on terror even harder to pursue?

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.