ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A destabilizing confrontation between Pakistan's fledgling democratic government and its powerful military is evolving into a debate over the country's controversial nuclear weapons program.
Opposition politicians characterized Asif Zardari, the president, on Sunday as bowing to U.S. policy to rollback 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 waged three wars against each other since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1947. They conducted tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests in May 1998.
"Our nuclear weapons are in safe hands, but they are under threat from the policymakers," Shah Qureshi, who until February was Pakistan's foreign minister, told an estimated 100,000 people at an opposition rally in Karachi.
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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.
Considered India's 9/11, the attacks over three days claimed the lives of 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 amid public tensions 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 has 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 coup fears as speculation.
Criticism of the government's national security credentials rose another notch on Monday in Pakistan's fiercely independent media, which have frequently clashed with the government since Zardari became president in September 2008.
A leading English-language daily newspaper, The News International, reported that the government consistently had reduced funding to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program since assuming office.
Most budgeted funding was being spent on salaries and the security of nuclear weapons, leaving little for further technical development, the paper 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 office of Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Gilani, on Monday 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 5,500km-range missile dubbed the "China-killer" by Indian defense analysts.
Pakistan has, to date, not tested any missile capable of travelling more than 2,100kilometers - 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 provocatively by re-testing a proven capability, they said.
"It is not always a question of whose missiles go furthest. It's more a question of having the capability to control flight path and range," said Maria Sultan, a think tank chief who advises the Pakistani ministry of defense on nuclear non-proliferation.
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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