ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan will seek U.S. aid for its civilian nuclear power program next week when its top military and senior civilian leaders visit Washington to re-start a "strategic dialogue" between the two countries.
The series of meetings, scheduled to begin on March 24, will be the first such talks since mid-2008 and are expected to cover numerous issues. Pakistan thinks it's suffered from the fallout of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan and wants more assistance, despite a recent $7.5 billion U.S. aid package.
"I think the time has come. My message to Washington is: We've been talking a lot. The time has come to walk the talk," Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told a news conference Thursday in which he confirmed that civilian nuclear talks are on the agenda. "We've done our bit. The ordinary citizen in Pakistan has paid a price. We've delivered. (Now you) start delivering."
The U.S., however, is unlikely to deliver by offering a nuclear deal that parallels the package that former President George W. Bush granted to Pakistan's archenemy India.
The Senate would have to approve such a deal, and despite claims that Pakistan's recent arrests of the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban and other members of its governing council signal a "strategic shift" against its longtime Afghan allies, its performance combating Islamic extremists is uneven. Moreover, the former head of its nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, sold nuclear weapons-related technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, and Pakistan has never allowed U.S. intelligence officers to interview him.
Nevertheless, many U.S. officials think that Pakistan holds the key to stabilizing Afghanistan so that U.S. troops can begin withdrawing in mid-2011, as President Barack Obama said they would in December.
However, U.S. and Pakistani views on how to do that differ.
Pakistan wants Washington to accept a political settlement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the insurgents that would aim to end the fighting now, with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and other top militant leaders included in the settlement, according to Pakistani officials, who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"Pakistan is no longer interested in getting the Afghan Taliban back on their own," said Moeed Yusuf, an expert on Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded policy institute in Washington. "They realize that if the Taliban were to come back in power in Afghanistan, Pakistan would be next."
The U.S. position, in public at least, is that any negotiations must wait until the insurgents have been significantly weakened, and that the top command of the Taliban is "irreconcilable."
Although other incentives, including tens of billions of dollars in military and civilian aid, haven't worked, a nuclear deal could be the carrot required for Pakistan to cut its ties to Afghan jihadist groups, said Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.
"We need a big idea for Pakistan, to transform it from a source of insecurity for the region to a country committed to eliminating terrorism and ensuring that nuclear proliferation doesn't happen again," Fair said. "At the moment, we're trying to get Pakistan to do things that are in our strategic interests, but not in theirs."
A deal, however, would need to include strict conditions on cracking down on violent Islamic extremist groups and cooperation to combat nuclear proliferation, Fair said.
Other experts think that given Pakistan's record on combating terrorism and proliferation, its request for nuclear aid will be dead on arrival in Washington.
The restrictions and conditions the U.S. would require in such an accord would "be so offensive to the Pakistanis that instead of improving relations, it (the treaty) would end up irritating them," said George Perkovic of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
What's more, Pakistan couldn't pay for the nuclear technology it wants, Perkovic said. "No company in its right mind would build in Pakistan," he said. "Are they going to get paid? Are their workers going to be safe? The answer in most cases is going to be no."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser James Jones, will host next week's talks, which will also cover aid for Pakistan's staggering economy.
Qureshi will lead the Pakistani delegation, which will include Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Pakistan, however, has other reasons for seeking the deal. Pakistanis, including its political and military leaders, think that the U.S. is plotting to eliminate their nuclear weapons, which they consider an essential deterrent to aggression by nuclear-armed India.
A civilian nuclear agreement should stop such paranoia and encourage Pakistan to consider the U.S. a true ally, much as the Bush administration's nuclear pact with India helped transform a difficult U.S.-India relationship, Pakistani analysts said.
Although the U.S-India deal still isn't finalized after more than five years, Pakistan may crave a nuclear deal with the U.S. more to achieve parity with India than for any energy benefits it would provide.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari discussed the issue with U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who visited Islamabad this week, telling him that the "provision of civilian nuclear technology would go a long way in addressing misperception about the U.S. in Pakistan," said Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
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