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Pakistan-U.S. Talks Keep Lines Open, Offer Little Else, Experts Say

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON – This week’s round of U.S.-Pakistani strategic talks served to maintain lines of communication but offered no hint of progress in resolving the nations’ longstanding disagreements on nuclear nonproliferation issues, experts said.

At present there is simply too much divergence and too little agreement, on matters from the future of Afghanistan to strategies for dealing with regional militants, to hope for eased tensions between Islamabad and Washington, the region analysts told Global Security Newswire.

“It’s pretty bad now from what I can see, because there really aren’t any positives that are coming out across the board,” said Sharad Joshi, a South Asia specialist with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “Not just on nonproliferation matters, but also on Afghanistan and other things.”

The governments issued a short joint statement following the Monday talks in Islamabad led by U.S. acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller and Pakistani Additional Secretary for United Nations and Economic Coordination Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry.

The bilateral Pakistan-U.S. Security, Strategic Stability and Nonproliferation Working Group had a “productive exchange” that addressed global nuclear security efforts, proliferation threats, export rules and biological and chemical weapons, according to the statement. “The delegations reaffirmed that the SSS&NP Working Group remains an invaluable forum for discussing these issues of critical mutual importance and looked forward to continuing the process.”

The State Department and Pakistani Embassy in Washington did not offer further information about the talks, which have been conducted intermittently for several years.

“The public statement that was put out was very anodyne,” said Toby Dalton, a former senior Energy Department nuclear security official now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“I’ve seen a little bit of reporting that said the Pakistanis asked for a civilian nuclear deal and we said no,” he said. “I would imagine on the other side … we would ask the Pakistanis for some movement on [a fissile material cutoff treaty] and I’m sure they said no thank you.”

Reporting from Pakistan indicated that both issues were raised at the meeting. They remain nonstarters respectively in Washington and Islamabad.

Pakistani officials for years have pressed for an agreement that would mirror the 2008 deal under which longtime foe India is allowed to buy U.S. nuclear technology and materials. Both South Asian states hold atomic arms outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but Pakistan carries the extra burden of being the former home to an infamous nuclear proliferation operation and struggling with the Taliban and other in-country insurgents.

Meanwhile, Washington is aggravated by Islamabad’s unwillingness to allow negotiations at the international Conference on Disarmament on arms control measures including a treaty to prohibit production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. The Geneva-based group of 165 nations works by consensus, and Pakistan has for years opposed any plan of work.

Joshi said Pakistani officials have reportedly suggested that a nuclear deal could ease their government’s position on the fissile material pact. He acknowledged, though, that demands for talks on regional arms control and other issues are also wrapped up into the mix. “It’s a stalemate,” he said.

Joshi and Dalton were similarly skeptical of hopes for progress in addressing concerns over the security of Pakistani nuclear complex and its seeming rapid arsenal buildup.

Concerns over the potential diversion of the nation’s atomic assets spike following assaults on military sites such as the August attack on an air force base rumored to house nuclear warheads. Leaders, though, say they have taken steps to prevent any threats, from instituting personnel reliability programs to bulking up the security force by 10,000 troops.

“The Pakistani position is we’ll take care of it, there’s nothing for you to talk about,” Joshi said.

The Obama administration, publicly at least, has accepted this position.

Meanwhile, Washington is not likely to gain any traction in discussing Islamabad’s arsenal moves, which include expanding the stockpile past 100 weapons and reported preparation of a tactical nuclear bomb.

Pakistan sees the United States as having “unshackled” India’s nuclear arms program through access to sensitive materials and technology, Dalton said. While no goods provided under the agreement are to be used for weapons, even independent observers have noted it could allow New Delhi to direct its national resources toward military purposes.

“There’s very little we can do to assuage their concerns about India if we are part of the problem,” the Carnegie analyst said.

The U.S.-Pakistan statement said this week’s talks were the most recent of a series of working group meetings that since late November have addressed economic, defense and energy issues.

Talks will and should continue, Dalton. He added that they should not be taken to represent a “strategic partnership” in which the two nations collaborate to promote their common interests in the region.

“The underlying advantage of these kinds of meetings is you need some kind of channel of communication that’s permanently on,” Joshi said. “Just because there’s no progress being made on the issue … that shouldn’t mean that talks come to a standstill and they don’t even talk to each other.”

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