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Experts slam Obama's clean chit to Pakistan

April 17, 2010 09:36 IST

Leading South Asia analysts in the United States have slammed President Obama for his stout defense of Islamabad as committed to non-proliferation and a safe steward of its nuclear weapons arsenal, and described his comparing the safety and security of US and Pakistan nuclear weapons is "unhelpful and disingenuous".

Obama, at his press conference, following the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit, when challenged that Pakistan was not playing by the rules and was enhancing its nuclear weapons programme even as the summit was underway, and if there should be more pressure on Pakistan from both the US and the international community to get Islamabad to fall in line, said, "I don't think Pakistan is playing by a different set of rules."

He argued, "I have actually seen progress over the last several years with respect to Pakistan's nuclear security issues."

But it was Obama's analogy of Pakistan's safety and security of its nuclear weapons arsenal with that of the laxity of US in one particular instance in recent years,  that had analysts and policy wonks scratching their heads.

Almost ruling out that Pakistan's nuclear assets were vulnerable to attempts by Al Qaeda to acquire a nuclear capability, Obama said, "I feel confident about Pakistan's security around its nuclear weapons programs. But that doesn't mean that there isn't improvement to make in all of our nuclear security programs."

"You'll recall that we had a little incident a while back where we had nuclear-tipped missiles on a bomber flying across the United States and nobody knew about it. And (Defense) Secretary (Robert) Gates, took exactly the right step, which was to hold those in charge accountable and to significantly alter our practices to make sure that something like that didn't happen again."

Thus, Obama argued that "it's important to note that every nuclear power, every country, that has a civilian nuclear energy programme, has to take better steps to secure these materials. And Pakistan is not exempt from that, but we aren't either. And, that's the goal of this summit and that was the goal of the communiqué and the work plan that we put forward."

Lisa Curtis, head of the South Asia Programme at the Heritage Foundation -- a leading conservative think tank here -- told rediff.com, "How strange it was for President Obama to raise the issue of nuclear-tipped missiles flying across the US in response to a question about the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons."

Curtis, an erstwhile South Asia analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency and later a key foreign policy adviser to Senator Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "Comparing the safety and security of US and Pakistan nuclear weapons is like comparing apples and oranges, especially when there is no mention of the A Q Khan debacle in Pakistan -- the worst case of proliferation in history."

She said that "while the administration's efforts to avoid embarrassing Pakistan on the nuclear issue are somewhat understandable, it is unhelpful and disingenuous to completely dismiss the dangers of the potential intersection of nuclear weapons and terrorism in Pakistan."

Curtis's sentiments were echoed by Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "The desire to preserve amity at the summit at all costs produced some odd moments, as, for example, when Obama not only declined to address Pakistan's poor nonproliferation record, even when pressed at his press conference, but actually deflected it by suggesting that past American mistakes in regard to nuclear weapons management suggest that all countries need to improve."

Tellis, one of the foremost strategic experts in the country, said, "While, this is obviously true on the face of it, I think the President's analogy was terribly overstated."

He argued that "recent US failures regarding the transport of American nuclear weapons represent examples of procedural breakdowns, not examples of deliberate proliferation undertaken as a result of conscious state decision -- which is clearly the case, at least in some instances, where Pakistan is concerned."

Tellis acknowledged that he could understand Obama going to bat for Pakistan thus not only would have "disappointed some Indian officials," but raised eyebrows even among long-time nonproliferation experts and the intelligence fraternity.

But he rationalized it saying, "Given the administration's emphasis on avoiding divisive issues, at the summit, that should not be surprising."

 

 

 

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC