Has the bomb helped us? By M B Naqvi
The News, May 28, 2008
Today is the tenth anniversary of Pakistan's test explosion of nuclear weapons in Chagai ordered by then prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. The tests were in response to India's actions of May 11 when it tested five nuclear devices.
Let's get one thing clear. All test explosions are basically military threats to the enemy: On May 11 and 13, 1998, India was threatening to nuke Pakistan if it did not stop its proxy war in Indian-held Kashmir. Pakistan's reply was, We too will nuke you; come on. Both India and Pakistan paid a price in sanctions that in fact hurt Pakistan more than they did India.
A second truth about the Bomb is that it unavoidably causes its intended enemy to reply in kind and a competitive build up of atomic weaponry ensues. Western bomb-making was aimed at communist powers. Nobody could mistake that communists' nukes were aimed at Western targets. Israeli nukes are meant to annihilate Arab states or Iran. India's enemy remains ambiguous: it could be China or Pakistan. This mystery is intended. But irrespective of what L K Advani, the BJP's prime minister-in-waiting, may say, circumstantial evidence suggested that the BJP decision in 1998 was Pakistan-centred.
Anyhow, Pakistanis should make honest cost-benefit analysis of the Bomb. Why Pakistan decided to have atomic weapons should not be difficult to understand. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto meant what he said when he said that "we will eat grass" but have the Bomb. What he said has happened because the people of this country are close to doing just that. It is time to ascertain the costs and benefits that it has given to Pakistan's security. Pakistan achieved the ability to enrich uranium in 1984. By 1986 it was able to threaten India with a possible nuclear response if Operation Brass Tacks grew into an invasion. Next came the Kargil adventure in which, the Americans inform us, Pakistan readied its missiles with nuclear warheads and asked India not to go too far. However, Nawaz Sharif managed to extricate Pakistani troops from those heights with American help. Far from being an achievement, it was a political and military defeat despite Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
The Agra talks are irrelevant here, but 2002 is not. That year the Vajpayee government threatened an all-out invasion and sent the Indian army on the borders in ready-to-attack mode. Again Pakistan threatened some 13 times in the first few months that it would launch nuclear weapons if India's troops crossed the international border – and India refrained from doing that. But overall judgement on the matter should be based on several factors: effective American mediation and that Delhi's purpose was to coerce Pakistan into giving up its proxy war in Kashmir. Finally, the Indians got what they wanted: a firm promise from Pakistan that the mujahideen would not be allowed to cross over into Indian-controlled Kashmir, with probable American guarantees.
This is not a glorious record in terms of national security; Pakistan has been unsuccessfully seeking concessions out of India since 2004 in negotiations. The fact of the matter is that the Bomb has helped neither in war nor in peace time.
In all the above cases the Indians knew that Pakistan had the Bomb. Also, India's generals must have known that there is no defence against nuclear weapons and if Pakistan had launched its arsenal the losses would have been unacceptable. How could they then dare to blatantly threaten Pakistan in 2002? And the answer to that is that they were obviously not overly afraid of the Pakistani Bomb. Perhaps, by 2002, if not 1999, the Indians reasoned that the maximum Pakistan can do is to take out a few Indian cities? Let it. But India, with a second-strike capability, could retaliate decisively. Pakistan comprises seven or eight urban-industrial centres and India must have felt that it could wipe out all of them. Hence, can any Pakistani government or general really take the risk of launching nuclear weapons against India, knowing that in consequence most of Pakistan could be destroyed? Thus, Pakistan's Bomb has amounted to what one could call a bluff.
And with this the much-hyped deterrent value of nuclear weapons has been dealt a mortal blow. The only plus point was in 1986 when Pakistan threatened India with a nuclear strike and the Indians retreated. But that has not prevented India from credibly threatening Pakistan with a conventional invasion, in full confidence of gaining a victory and knowing that Pakistan, when the chips are down, would not nuke India. Thus, India's conventional superiority again becomes relevant. In that sense, our costly nuclear arsenal is more or less irrelevant for our national security, if not completely a minus point.
Politically, Pakistan has paid a huge price. Far from being an important or respected country, it is now seen as an American satellite. The kind of micro-managing that the Americans are doing in Pakistan politics is an abject lesson. Besides, minor EU countries continue advising it what to do and what to avoid in forming a government after an election. How much lower can it sink? As for economics, look at the state of our economy today. How does having nuclear weapons help us in any way – with a massive current account deficit and rampant inflation? Those who think that the cost of the arms race with India does not play a key role in all of this are sadly mistaken. Since resources are limited, those that are diverted to the upkeep of the nuclear arsenal and the defence budget means that less are available for socio-economic development.
It is time that Islamabad rids itself of its nuclear arsenal – in the responsible that for instance South Africa has done. Even the size of the conventional army is too big for a country like Pakistan. Leveraged by help from the US (which allows the latter to achieve its own geo-political aims), the army continues to threaten democracy because of its repeated interventions.
The writer is a veteran journalist and freelance columnist. Email: mbnaqvi @cyber.net.pk