WASHINGTON: Days before a key nuclear summit in Washington, the United States has assured the international community that Pakistan is capable of protecting its nuclear weapons.

At a joint news briefing with Pakistani officials last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry, however, did stress the need for ending the nuclear race in South Asia. He reminded Pakistan that the US and Russia had reduced their nukes from 50,000 to 1,500 and were now working on further reductions.

Asked to comment on Secretary Kerry’s statement, US State Department’s spokesman John Kirby told a news briefing in Washington on Monday that this did not mean the United States suspected Pakistan’s ability to defend its nuclear arsenal.

“We have said before that we believe that the government of Pakistan can and does provide the necessary security that they need for that arsenal,” he said.

Diplomatic observers in Washington say that the two statements do provide a window to the possible US strategy for dealing with nuclear proliferation in South Asia during the two-day summit, which begins on March 31.

Unlike it did with Iran, the US does not want Pakistan to shut down its nuclear programme. But it does want Islamabad to reduce the size of its arsenal, the observers add.

Adviser to PM on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, who represented Pakistan at last week’s talks, however, insisted that Islamabad would not accept any unilateral curb on its programme. Any reduction must also apply to India and it must address the conventional imbalance between the two countries. He pointed out that Pakistan did not have the resources to match India’s ever-increasing arsenal of conventional weapons and was forced to depend on non-conventional means to defend itself.

At Monday’s briefings, another State Department official, Mark Toner, also faced a question about Mr Aziz’s declaration in Washington last week that Pakistan was hosting some Taliban leaders and could withdraw certain facilities given to their families to persuade them to join the Afghan reconciliation talks.

The US and Indian media flashed this statement as an admission of guilt and asked Pakistan to clarify its position.

“We have very serious talks with Pakistan” about the presence of “some Taliban forces” in the country, Mr Toner said. But instead of focusing on the allegation that Pakistan was sheltering Taliban leaders, the US official noted that their presence was “a very serious threat” to the country itself.

“As we’ve long said, no one suffers more from terrorist attacks than the people of Pakistan. So we’re committed to helping them take that fight against the terrorists who are in their country, within Pakistan’s borders,” he said.

At the other briefing, Mr Kirby addressed another key point in Mr Aziz’s statement that the stakes were high for the next round of Afghan reconciliation talks and their failure will significantly increase violence and insurgency this summer.

“We certainly share his assessment that there is and should be a sense of urgency around getting these talks up and running and, in this case, resumed,” said Mr Kirby when asked to comment on Mr Aziz’s statement.

“And I don’t think we would disagree either with his assessment… we would — and the Afghan Security Forces would — have to prepare themselves for the potential for increased violence in the spring and summer months,” he said. “It would be irresponsible if we didn’t.”

Reminded that the Afghan Taliban had already backed out of these talks, Mr Kirby said the Taliban had a choice: Continue to fight or engage in a peace process. But the prospects for the success of these talks were “fair”, he added.

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2016

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