THE Pressler amendment, passed by the US Congress in August 1985, was a blessing in disguise for Pakistan. Thirty-two years since its passage, it is time to set the record straight.

An examination of the legislative history of the Pressler amendment to the US Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) of 1961, Section 620 E (e) reveals that it saved Pakistan-US security relationship at a critical time, allowing the US to continue providing economic and military assistance to Pakistan under the aid package passed in 1981-82 to fight the Soviets in the region.

A year before the amendment was passed by Congress, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 28, 1984, had adopted an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, proposed by two Democrat senators, Alan Cranston and John Glenn. Their proposed amendment to Section 620 E (e) was quite stringent in its terms suggesting that no military or technology equipment was to be provided to Pakistan unless the American president certified that Pakistan did not “possess” a nuclear explosive device and that it was neither “developing” nor “acquiring” a nuclear explosive device.

On April 3, 1984, the committee deleted this amendment in favour of a revised amendment with a 9-8 vote. The adopted revision to the original Cranston-Glenn amendment was co-sponsored by three Republican senators, Charles Percy, McC. Mathias Jr. and Larry Pressler. This revised amendment was enacted in a separate bill in August 1985, popularly called the Pressler amendment. It stated that no military or technology equipment was to be provided to Pakistan unless the US president certified that Pakistan did not “possess” a nuclear explosive device and that the assistance provided by America would “reduce significantly the risk that Pakistan will possess a nuclear explosive device”.

If analysed carefully, the amendment favoured the continuation of economic and military assistance to Pakistan.

The Pressler amendment made US economic and military assistance to Pakistan conditional upon two certifications, one factual and one judgemental. The certification on Pakistan’s “non-possession” of the nuclear explosive device was a factual finding where the US president was required by law to review the relevant intelligence information about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons-related activities and report to Congress that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device. The second certification was a judgemental finding where the US president was required to testify on the non-proliferation impact of US assistance to Pakistan in reducing the risk of Pakistan possessing a nuclear explosive device.

There are interesting elaborations on both. While the term “nuclear explosive device” was clear, there were issues with respect to making the judgement about what “possession” meant. Terms like “manufacturing” or “acquisition” of a nuclear explosive device were commonly used, but the word “possession” of a nuclear explosive device had never been used, leaving it open to interpretation and a “matter of first impression”.

A report prepared by legal advisers at the State Department who analysed the language used in the Pressler amendment justified the Reagan administration’s position on what “possession” and “non-possession” meant in Pakistan’s case. On possession it stated that if a country had “manufactured” or “assembled” a nuclear explosive device then it “possessed” such a device. If a country had the necessary components to assemble a functioning device but decided to keep it disassembled in different locations, it “possessed” such a device. But a country did not “possess” a nuclear explosive device if “one or more of the essential elements required to assemble a device” were lacking, be it due to technical or policy constraints. In either event, the report argued, what the country possessed was not “yet” a “nuclear explosive device”.

However, interestingly, the report stated that the finder of the fact about a country possessing a nuclear device should be alerted to the consideration that there were “grey areas” between “possession and non-possession” relating to the “timing” of the country’s policy decision to stop short of “possessing” the nuclear explosive device which should be taken into account. The second certification (judgemental) was dependent on the first certification that Pakistan “did not possess” a nuclear device and therefore the assistance was to aim at significantly reducing the risk that Pakistan in future would “possess” a nuclear explosive device.

Although this report did not represent the official view of the State Department, it clearly explained the innuendos in the Pressler language that could have allowed Pakistan to avoid Pressler sanctions had the administration chosen to share it with the Pakistani government. The language of the amendment, however, was ingenious. If analysed carefully, it favoured the continuation of economic and military assistance to Pakistan by using ambiguous terms like “possession” of a nuclear explosive device, which as the report discussed, was open to interpretation.

This ambiguity enshrined in the language of the amendment also gave the president enough flexibility in case his certifications were later challenged in the court of law. The president could say that he made the certification based on his best judgement given the available intelligence at the time on Pakistan’s nuclear activities. And as is obvious, intelligence on any country’s nuclear explosives programme that is being run clandestinely could never be complete since facts about the programme would always be shrouded in secrecy making it unreasonable to expect foolproof intelligence.

There is no evidence whether this report was shared with Pakistan. But there is evidence that Pakistan was informed about the Pressler amendment before the Congress passed it in 1985. Pakistan was told that it was the only way for continuance of the aid package. Pakistan was also given a clear understanding that the presidential certifications required by the Pressler amendment would be provided for the duration of the aid package. Pakistan was taken on board and gave consent to the passage of the Pressler amendment. Pressler sanctions were imposed on Pakistan in October 1990. The popular account of the sanctions relates to the ‘disposability’ of Pakistan for the US after the latter had achieved its strategic foreign policy objectives by ‘using’ Pakistan to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. However, that too was not a surprise for Pakistan for it had been forewarned.

The writer is a nuclear historian and Director Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at University of Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2017



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