The Hard Choice


Dr Abdul H. Nayyar

It is indeed a sad moment for peace lovers in Pakistan. Normally they would have advocated a unilateral renunciation of nuclear option by Pakistan. Now they have retreated to a position from where they are only calling for a restraint. They have come down to asking Pakistan to keep the nuclear ambiguity intact, the same ambiguity that they always regarded - and most certainly still do - as a destabilising factor in the region. This had to come, for many a threshold has been crossed in the past few days.

The Indian nuclear tests can be seen as an expected outcome of the general perceptions that have evolved in India over the last 50 years. Perceptions about themselves, and about others. About being traditionally in the forefront of anti-imperialist struggle, defying the hegemonic superpower domination. About being destined to an important role in the global affairs. About being at least as important as the five big powers. Pakistan occupies only a minor place in this perception. Perhaps a little more important than other neighbours, but certainly a dangerous irritant that is used by superpowers to tie India down. That this self-perception is deeply embedded in India was clearly shown in a survey conducted among the Indian elite in 1995 by the John B Kroc Institute. It showed that the Indian nuclear programme was not perceived as Pakistan specific, and that Indian elite sees it as aimed at achieving the above objectives.

A similar poll conducted in Pakistan in 1996 by the same institution gave a different picture. For a vast majority, threat to the country comes mainly from India. The nuclear programme is justified only to counter Indian hegemonic designs in the region. For Pakistani elite the cost of this pursuit is unimportant.

There is thus a very peculiar situation at hand. India is treading the nuclear path with ambitions to match nuclear weapon states so as to carve out a global role for itself. Pakistan is being dragged along by its policy that is only reactive to India. Now the repeated Indian nuclear tests have posed a serious dilemma for Pakistan. As viewed by its policy makers, Pakistan is damned if it conducts its own nuclear test, and damned also if it does not.

If it does not then: One, It will be seen as a loss of face in the world which has been made to believe for years that Pakistan has only stopped short of the last screw and is ready to meet the challenge in no time. The policy makers regard it as a matter of pride that Pakistan is labelled as a nuclear threshold state and is a part of the global nuclear debates. It is a different matter that the Indians do not seem to believe this. They are already taunting Pakistan into a test duel. (See for example Manod Joshi's statement, Jang May 13).

Two, there will be loss of face inside the country also where a strong security hype has been created over the decades, with reassuring, and at times boastful, claims that there will be a certain tit-for-tat response. The Ghauri missile was a most recent exercise of this kind after which even the foreign minister lost his diplomatic veneer, claiming that the Ghauri gave Pakistan an edge over India. What worries the policy makers is that all that was 'gained' by Ghauri in this senseless race has simply evaporated with the Indian tests.

Three, Pakistan has always struggled to achieve parity with India on defence matters, sometimes even deluding itself of having achieved it. The objective was to claim an equal status in geopolitics. The greatest fear facing Pakistani policy makers is that of losing that claim.

On the other hand if it does test its own nuclear weapon, it faces several consequences. For one, there will be sanctions which can have devastating consequences for its fragile economy. Secondly, it will have to bargain away the ambiguity that has been the cornerstone of its supposed nuclear doctrine.

Thirdly, the ensuing nuclear arms race is definitely going to prove costlier than it has been so far. The veil of ambiguity had at least allowed an opportunity to put a hold on the nuclear race; the 'enemy' was left guessing on what the level of capability was. With the veil gone, it will be a weapon versus a weapon. The parity that Pakistan may seek to achieve by exploding a nuclear weapon will still elude it. The technological leap that India has taken is most certainly far too big for Pakistan, at least for now and perhaps in the foreseeable future also. India has demonstrated two major advancements (if that is what these can be called) in the May 11 and 13 tests: first, constructing a thermonuclear weapon, and second showing that they can make tactical weapons also.

These two will have to be matched by Pakistan if it aims at a credible deterrence. The race will also involve having efficient and reliable delivery systems. The Prithvis, Agnis, Ghauris, and if our president has any say in the matter then Ghaznavis and Babaris, will most definitely lead to missile defence systems which proved so destabilising even to the USA and the USSR that the ABM treaty was one of the early treaties entered into by the two. With India having already announced launching a missile defence system production, Pakistan is not likely to opt out of this next step.

The race will go on. More fission weapons, more hydrogen bombs, more tactical weapons, larger and longer ranged missiles, missile defence systems, and so on. Imagine the burden of this on the economies. It is futile to doubt the technical capability of achieving the objective. It is now well-recognised that nuclear weapons and missiles can be developed by any nation that has a modest technical capability and a resolve to put resources into it. It only requires putting textbook knowledge into practice. Or, even easier is to just reverse-engineer.

Fourth, a Pakistani test will heighten tension in the region. The covert wars will increase. It will in fact reinforce that false sense of security which has allowed Pakistan to support insurgencies across the border.

An overt nuclearisation of South Asia with associated developments in delivery systems, etc, cannot be a 'better deterrent' than the non-weaponised one as the pro-test lobby would like us to believe. If anything, it will be much more unstable. The Ghauri missile took about ten minutes to travel 1100 kilometres. The Prithvi and Hatf take less than five minutes to reach their targets 300 kilometres away. What time do they leave for a rational response. The history of the USA-USSR cold war is replete with incidences of false alarms, and the world was spared of the Armageddon by one, the longer flight time the ICBM's needed to cover the long distance between the two countries, two, the excellent command, control and intelligence systems and three, the permissive action links established in the command hierarchy that prevented pushing of buttons either accidentally or in panic. India and Pakistan do not have the luxury of any of these.

Pakistan's security concern being solely tied to India, its 'nuclear doctrine' is based on the awareness of the increasing disparity in the conventional defence capabilities. The nuclear weapons are to be used in a war with India when conventional defence system fails to withstand the Indian superiority.

The message too is very clear: "If in any future conflagration we find that our forces are losing ground, we shall not hesitate to use whatever nuclear arsenal we have. It may be small, but it surely will cause a damage that cannot be acceptable to you. We also know that you have a much larger stock of nuclear weapons, and that you can indeed inflict much worse damage onto us, but our level of desperation is such that that is acceptable to us in comparison to a capitulation to your hegemony".

This 'doctrine' combined with the inevitability of the nuclear race, if Pakistan continues to follow its policy of being dragged behind India, makes the situation extremely unstable. A little mistake here and a panic there can easily lead to a havoc upon the peoples of the two countries. Should this be allowed?

It is time that Pakistan for once makes a hard choice: that of a unilateral nuclear disarmament, rather than choosing to match the Indian response with a test of its own, or even keeping a non-weaponised nuclear option. For this it will have to come out of the binds of its security perceptions and to make a rational choice of putting all the resources it has got into the economic development and welfare of its people. That is the only way to make the country worth defending.

Dr. Abdul Hameed Nayyar teaches physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University in the Pakistan Capital Islamabad. He is actively involved with nuclear disarmament issues and human rights initiatives.

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