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S. Asia Nukes Get a 'Pass' From Bush

June 25, 2003|Barbara Crossette | Barbara Crossette, a former bureau chief in South Asia and the United Nations for the New York Times, is a columnist for U.N. Wire, an independent Internet news service about international affairs.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the self-appointed president of Pakistan, got the full treatment in Washington on Tuesday, including a meeting with President Bush at secluded Camp David.

When the two leaders, thrown together by the war against Al Qaeda, met the press after their session, the mood looked good and the talk was of more trade -- in fact, a trade and investment agreement -- and the promise of a potential $3 billion in aid. It was all a way of thanking Pakistan for its continued assistance in the worldwide war on terror and for helping reduce tensions with India over Kashmir.

There were some nudges. Musharraf may have been urged to work a little harder at democracy, and he was told he had to do without the F-16s the Pakistan air force wanted.

But, to judge by the public comments at their joint news conference, the Pakistani president seems to have been let off the hook on the extremely critical issue of nuclear arms -- the very factor that has made Kashmir a very dangerous issue. Both India and Pakistan claim parts of Kashmir, a former autonomous kingdom in the Himalayas, and both have nuclear arsenals.

At any other time, the reaction to this apparent oversight might have been a shrug because Washington appeared to have given up any hope of rolling back Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs a few years ago, when President Clinton was in office.

But now, with the Bush administration obsessed with nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, it will look very odd to a lot of people around the world that the U.S. seems to think that nukes don't matter so much in South Asia, a politically volatile part of the world with enormous social problems and hundreds of millions of people living in poverty.

The latest figures from the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Center in Islamabad found that 515 million people, or about 40% of South Asians, have seen their incomes decline in the era of globalization. Indeed, Bush referred to this miserable situation when he said the proposed $3 billion in economic and military aid would work toward improving the lives of Pakistanis.

It is now an unspoken assumption that Pakistan's economic and developmental failures have fueled Islamic militancy among young men with no other prospects. Take this a step further. What if these angry young men, and some women, who are pledged to fighting infidels (starting with Hindus) actually come to power and the nuclear weapons are theirs for the taking?

One recalls the decision of South Africa to disband its nuclear program before the move to majority rule, when the dangers of nuclear misuse were far less evident. This is not a course of action that myopic Pakistan or, for that matter, Hindu nationalist India would ever consider, even to save the world from nuclear disaster.

Pakistan and India, both of which tested weapons in 1998 -- the first Pakistani tests and the second for India, whose 1974 explosions shattered the nuclear-free haven of South Asia -- are rogues in international terms since neither has signed the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, or the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

President Bush's "axis of evil" -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- on the other hand, did sign the nonproliferation treaty, although North Korea has lately renounced its participation and sent home International Atomic Energy Agency monitors.

It has been little noticed that inspectors from the IAEA have, under that treaty, made regular visits to both Iran and Iraq, including one to Iraq during the period after 1998 when there were no other international arms inspections taking place.

It was the IAEA that most recently raised the alarm about Iranian uranium imports and the construction of new nuclear installations. The IAEA says Iran, now under a barrage of U.S. threats, is willing to provide whatever information the agency wants.

In South Asia, not only are the two nuclear states able to avoid inspections by staying outside the NPT but they've been reluctant, according to local watchdog groups and the media, to keep their nuclear facilities, military or civilian, at international standards of maintenance, raising fears of accidents.

What the world will see increasingly is more American double standards.

Many nations never tire of challenging Washington about Israel's uncontrolled nuclear programs. If India and Pakistan continue to get the same pass, many will question whether it is really nuclearization in Iran that bothers the Bush administration. Or is that just the excuse? Remember the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

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