The South Asia Channel

Give Pakistan a nuclear deal

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi came to Washington this week armed with a long list of topics to discuss. Or to be more accurate, he arrived with a hodgepodge wishlist of unrealistic propositions. However, the most unlikely proposal — that Pakistan be given a civilian nuclear deal similar to the one India was granted ...

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi came to Washington this week armed with a long list of topics to discuss. Or to be more accurate, he arrived with a hodgepodge wishlist of unrealistic propositions. However, the most unlikely proposal -- that Pakistan be given a civilian nuclear deal similar to the one India was granted in 2008 -- could be the one that finally wins those elusive "hearts and minds."

It has become a mantra of the war on terror that poverty, desperation, and hopelessness breed militancy. A population that is contented, it is said, will never strap on suicide vests. Solving Pakistan's power crisis, a source of great exasperation for many Pakistanis that is getting progressively worse with each passing year, should be a priority in Washington. And providing nuclear energy may be the cheapest, most efficient way to deal with this crisis.

A poll conducted by Gallup in July 2009 found that 53 percent of the Pakistani population goes without electricity for more than eight hours a day. Since then the electricity shortfall in the country has increased by 42 percent from 3,500 megawatts to 5,000 megawatts. The Pakistani government has tried a variety of piecemeal measures -- building a power plant here, placing pleading ads in the newspapers begging consumers to cut their consumption there -- but technical and financial constraints do not allow wholesale reform. There is also a lack of will on the part of political governments to invest in long-term solutions since the benefits of such investment would not be felt for many years to come. This is where the United States and its civilian nuclear deal could rush in and save the day.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi came to Washington this week armed with a long list of topics to discuss. Or to be more accurate, he arrived with a hodgepodge wishlist of unrealistic propositions. However, the most unlikely proposal — that Pakistan be given a civilian nuclear deal similar to the one India was granted in 2008 — could be the one that finally wins those elusive "hearts and minds."

It has become a mantra of the war on terror that poverty, desperation, and hopelessness breed militancy. A population that is contented, it is said, will never strap on suicide vests. Solving Pakistan’s power crisis, a source of great exasperation for many Pakistanis that is getting progressively worse with each passing year, should be a priority in Washington. And providing nuclear energy may be the cheapest, most efficient way to deal with this crisis.

A poll conducted by Gallup in July 2009 found that 53 percent of the Pakistani population goes without electricity for more than eight hours a day. Since then the electricity shortfall in the country has increased by 42 percent from 3,500 megawatts to 5,000 megawatts. The Pakistani government has tried a variety of piecemeal measures — building a power plant here, placing pleading ads in the newspapers begging consumers to cut their consumption there — but technical and financial constraints do not allow wholesale reform. There is also a lack of will on the part of political governments to invest in long-term solutions since the benefits of such investment would not be felt for many years to come. This is where the United States and its civilian nuclear deal could rush in and save the day.

The benefits to the United States of such a deal should be obvious. Millions of electricity-starved Pakistanis might be thankful to the United States for providing aid that has a tangible impact on their lives. The civilian and military aid currently provided by the United States has not touched the life of the average Pakistani. This will also allow the Obama administration to keep a closer watch on Pakistan’s nuclear activities. By attaching the condition that all nuclear materials and technology provided under the agreement be monitored by the Americans, the U.S. government will gain greater knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear know-how. The Pakistani government, though, would have to spin such conditions to patriotic Pakistanis by boasting that Pakistan has been offered the same nuclear deal as the one given to India. The desire for parity with India should override questions of sovereignty, especially if the deal comes with a guarantee that Pakistan’s existing nuclear capabilities will remain untouched and unmonitored. In the long run the United States could help avert the next regional war, which may well be over the water that Pakistan so desperately relies on for electricity generation — water that Pakistan is now accusing India of withholding.

The most outlandish objection to a Pakistani nuclear deal is that the Taliban will take over Pakistan and with it the nuclear material provided by the United States. Given that the Taliban only control parts of the tribal areas in the country’s rugged northwest — land that has never been fully under the authority of the central government in Pakistan’s history — and that even the mainstream religious parties have never won more than 10 percent of the vote in general elections, this is an eventuality this is unlikely to come to pass. Then, there is the fear that Pakistani soldiers and officers with extremist sympathies could hand over a ‘dirty’ bomb to the Taliban, which somehow ignores the fact that the Pakistani army already has plenty of nukes to distribute to the Taliban if they so desired.

Pakistan might not "deserve" nuclear technology given its illegal past proliferation. By that standard, Pakistan also didn’t ‘deserve’ vast amounts of U.S. military aid to fight the Taliban considering its previous support for the regime. But international politics doesn’t work on the principle of treating countries like schoolchildren. Give Pakistan the civilian nuclear deal and leave the demerit-badges-for-past-performance idea for the Boy Scouts.

Nadir Hassan is a journalist working for Newsline magazine in Pakistan.

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