By Tom Hussain, McClatchy Newspapers
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A destabilizing confrontation between Pakistan’s fledgling democratic government and its powerful military is turning into a debate over the country’s nuclear weapons program.
Opposition politicians on Sunday characterized President Asif Zardari as bowing to U.S. policy to roll back Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. They dredged up his offer in November 2009 to abandon Pakistan’s “first strike” nuclear weapons posture against India, in return for a comprehensive peace agreement.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
“Our nuclear weapons are in safe hands, but they are under threat from the policymakers,” former Foreign Minister Shah Qureshi said to about 100,000 people at an opposition rally in Karachi.
Zardari’s offer to abandon the first-strike policy was rendered irrelevant within days by the November 2009 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India’s biggest city, carried out by the Pakistan-based terorrist group Lashkar-i-Taiba.
The attacks over three days killed 164 people. Subsequent tensions with India prompted Pakistan to rescind the offer.
Pakistan adopted a “first-strike” posture in 2000, citing the overwhelming superiority of India’s conventional forces.
The attack by Qureshi and another former minister, Asif Ahmad, on the president’s national security credentials came after public tension last week between the government and the military, which sparked fears of a coup.
They have clashed over claims by an American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, that Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Hussain Haqqani, had in May asked him to seek White House support against a brewing military coup.
Ijaz said he believed Haqqani had acted at the behest of the Pakistani president.
The affair is currently under investigation by Pakistan’s parliament and Supreme Court.
The Pakistani government dismissed the allegations, and was infuriated when its army chief and military intelligence chief last week submitted statements to the Supreme Court asserting that they believed Ijaz’s claims to be true.
The military position portrayed the government as surrendering sovereignty to Washington, sparking accusations of treason against Zardari.
However, the Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, on Friday dismissed fears of a coup as speculation.
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Criticism of the government’s national security credentials rose on Monday in Pakistan’s fiercely media, which have frequently clashed with the government since Zardari became president in September 2008.
An English-language daily newspaper, The News International, reported that the government had reduced funding to the nuclear weapons program since assuming office.
Most budgeted money was being spent on salaries and the security of nuclear weapons, leaving little for further technical development, the newspaper reported.
Pakistan has built a 10,000-man military force to guard its nuclear arsenal, partly in response to U.S. concerns that a nuclear warhead could be seized by al-Qaida or associated Pakistani militant groups.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a leading global watchdog on arms proliferation, estimates Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal at some 100 warheads — about 20 more than India.
The newspaper report said shortfalls in funding had led to a “technical rollback” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
The prime minister’s office denied that funding had been curtailed.
The reported rollback was an apparent reference to Pakistan’s decision not to respond publicly to unexpectedly rapid advances this year in India’s ballistic missile program. Significantly, they have included the successful test in November of India’s first “strategic” missile, the 3,500km-range Agni-IV.
The rising political rhetoric over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program coincided with the start on Monday of two days of confidence-building talks between India and Pakistan — the first in four years — aimed at reducing the risk of accidental war.
The talks also coincided with India’s preparations for the test in February of Agni-V, a 3,400-mile-range missile dubbed the “China-killer” by Indian defense analysts.
Pakistan has, to date, not tested any missile capable of travelling more than 1,300 miles — the maximum distance to any Indian territory when various payloads are factored in, Pakistani strategic experts said. Pakistan was unlikely to respond to India’s forthcoming missile test, because its own program is technically more advanced than India’s, they said.
Pakistan doesn’t consider it necessary to respond by retesting a proven capability, they said.