Despite Denials, US-Pak 123 Pact Can't be Written Off

Published: 25th October 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th October 2015 07:22 AM   |  A+A-

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A Pakistan-US nuclear deal similar to the Indo-US nuclear agreement did not materialise and it was officially denied during Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s recent US visit, but the big question is: was it a mere media speculation or was there something more than what met the eye?

Talk of a possible nuclear deal between the two countries has been in the air for some years, but it regained some traction when the Pakistan premier’s visit was scheduled.

Reference to nuclear deal did not find mention in either the Obama-Sharif joint statement or in any of the official briefings during the visit and a senior US administration official categorically stated that “we have not entered into negotiation on 123 Agreement with Pakistan within the nuclear supplier group in order to facilitate civil nuclear exports”, and that “the press allegations of a 123 Agreement with Pakistan are completely false”.

Notwithstanding such strong denials, such a deal cannot be ruled out in near future because official denials have often turned out to be attempts to camouflage an evolving development or an existing proposition. It is done so that crucial issues of strategic relevance could be discussed away from public glare and negotiations could be insulated from domestic pressures.

News stories related to the deal received credence only after a well-established columnist, David Ignatius, gave some details of a possible agreement that Washington is understood to be pursuing with Islamabad. Yet another columnist David E Sanger in New York Times confirmed it by saying the “Obama administration is exploring a deal with Pakistan that would limit the scope of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the fastest-growing on earth”. It then became a subject of intense discussion not only in Pakistani, Indian and US media but also among experts and policy-making circles, as dates of Sharif’s visit drew closer. On the eve of his meeting with Obama, reports were published that Pakistan has developed tactical battlefield nuclear weapons, or mini nukes in popular parlance, and they are ready for deployment.

As if to build up Islamabad’s case, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry claimed that India had moved cantonments to the Pakistan border and thus had created a gap in the conventional capabilities of the two countries through its Cold Start doctrine, which has forced Pakistan to develop short-range nuclear capabilities to deter any Indian attack.

During the Pakistan PM’s visit, a US think-tank, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, said, “Pakistan has a nuclear weapons stockpile of 110 to 130 warheads, an increase of 90 to 110 warheads in 2011.” In August this year, two other US leading think-tanks, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Centre, said Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear capabilities, and the country is far outpacing India in development of warheads and Islamabad could have world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile within a decade.

Such a development, if not restrained, could result in a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan and this logic is powerful enough to explore ways and means to put constraints, and a possible 123 Agreement could be one instrument with which Washington could operate to defuse the nuclear crisis in South Asia.

Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal is an effective argument in favour of a deal, but the US needs Islamabad for its continuing role in Afghanistan. Russia’s intervention in Syria has further enhanced the importance of Islamabad in Washington’s assessment. Such a deal would also serve the US’s long-term commitment of controlling the nuclear arms race.

At the same time, Pakistani spokespersons took pains to forcefully state that the PM has told the US President that Islamabad would not surrender its right to use short-range nuclear weapons. The statement could be to address the domestic public opinion.

It’s possible that the deal may have not found any mention or been paid little attention in the Sharif-Obama talks, as it is well known that it’s not the civilian dispensation but the military that calls the shots in Pakistan.

In this context, Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif’s US visit next month needs to be seen, when top US officials will hold talks with the General and his team. His stature has grown considerably in recent months because of his role in stabilising the democratic process and armed forces’ operation against terrorist networks.

There is a possibility that contours of a nuclear deal may emerge during his stay and then formal negotiation with the Sharif government may begin. Using a cliché, it is rare that there is smoke without a fire.

drsatishmisra@gmail.com

Misra is a Senior Fellow at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation

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