- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

The “core” of the U.S.-Pakistan relations is still counterterrorism, noted Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani in a recent meeting with reporters and editors at The Washington Times, but Pakistan would like to expand that relationship, particularly the economic and trade relationship — what Mr. Durrani calls the “best binder” between two countries. For Washington, however, cooperation on counterterrorism efforts is still first and foremost, and this is a commitment that the ambassador, who presented his credentials to President Bush less than one month ago, understands.

After the fall of the Taliban, al Qaeda forces crossed the border into Pakistan and took shelter in the tribal zones, autonomous areas that have never been under the control of the Pakistani government. In these very religious areas, militant Islamic forces have fomented extremism, creating both a hideout for al Qaeda leadership and fertile recruiting ground for militant extremists. In addition to military forces, Mr. Durrani outlined a plan that would include a strong focus on economic development and infrastructure improvements, designed to bring the areas more in line with the rest of Pakistan.

Also essential is addressing the radical Muslim schools, or madrassas, which number around 14,000 and harbor violent militants while providing a forum for the perpetuation of extreme Islamist teachings. Pakistan will not be able to get rid of the madrassas, but Mr. Durrani noted that changing the curriculum to include practical, job-oriented instruction would be an important step.

The July 24 report from the Institute for Science and International Security, which stated that a new Pakistani reactor would be able to produce enough nuclear material every year for close to 50 nuclear warheads, caused concerns that chances of proliferation would increase, as would the risks of an arms race with India. But this report “grossly exaggerates what is happening,” claims Mr. Durrani. The National Security Council also believes that the report overstates the size of the new reactor.

Critics of the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal are using the report of the new reactor as fodder, claiming that India will use nuclear material previously used for civilian purposes to increase its nuclear arsenal, prompting Pakistan, in the name of deterrence, to do the same. Mr. Durrani disagreed; while Pakistan has some concerns about the deal, the ambassador claimed that it will not seriously effect India-Pakistan relations. The ambassador candidly acknowledged that the proliferation network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, which sent nuclear materials across the Middle East, from Iran to Libya, was a “absolute total unmitigated disaster for Pakistan,” and stands firmly between Pakistan and any similar civil nuclear agreement with the United States.

Pakistan certainly has progress to make when it comes to correcting social imbalances — particularly the treatment of women, which ranges widely in the country and is still deplorable in some areas — and developing democracy. Improvement in both areas would also strengthen U.S.-Pakistani ties. Mr. Durrani, a former general and scholar, is renowned, even in India, for his contributions to amicable India-Pakistan relations, and is a valuable addition to the Washington diplomatic corps.

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