Nuclear war: an insane option

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

MAY 28 is the fourth anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear tests at Chaghai. On Yom-i-takbir, which the government celebrated in a big way in 1999, it informed the people through boastful newspaper ads: “We are the seventh nuclear power of the world”.

Today, as war clouds gather on the horizon, this nuclear status gives us no joy or confidence. Those in power might reassure us that nuclear weapons will not be used. But who will believe them? Can states, which possess nuclear arsenals, keep their confrontation limited to warfare with conventional weapons?

The fact is that the nuclear capability we created for ourselves four years ago hangs like an albatross tied round our neck. When Islamabad decided to test its nuclear device, we were told that the tests were essential for Pakistan to restore the strategic balance with India. That country, under a militant right-wing Hindu fundamentalist government, had foolishly tested its nuclear bomb a fortnight earlier in a show of jingoism. But now it is plain that this balance will not save the two countries from self-destruction.

Initially, the governments on both sides of the border proceeded on the assumption that MAD (the nuclear doctrine of mutually assured destruction) will pre-empt a nuclear conflict between them. The general belief — though questionable — is that the US and the USSR didn’t start a shooting war with each other in the cold war years because their nuclear weapons acted as a deterrent.

What has happened in our case is that we have come to wrongly believe that nuclear weapons can be made to serve rational ends. But this is a misconception. They are basically weapons of mass destruction and their use would amount to mass suicide, for the contiguity of the two neighbours ensures that the attacker is equally vulnerable.

The nuclear fallout would show no respect for international boundaries. Experts tell us that those close enough to “ground zero” (a six square-mile area for a one megaton blast) will be killed instantly by the gamma rays emitted from the blast. Others — that is nine out of ten people — will die in a ten-mile radius from the radiation, the pressure wave, the high-velocity winds and the firestorms which will follow. Hundreds of thousands will die immediately and many more will be doomed to die within a few weeks a painful and slow death caused by radioactivity.

One wonders if our policymakers understand the horrible implications of a nuclear attack. It is plain that they will never be able to resist the temptation to press the nuclear button when a conventional war breaks out in which Pakistan finds itself at a disadvantage, being the weaker side in conventional warfare. Moreover, in the climate of hatred and tension which is building up in the region, neither of the two governments can truly give an undertaking that the nuclear option will not be used.

Moreover, Pakistan with its smaller size and lack of territorial depth will be the one to suffer greater devastation even if it resorts to a first strike — which it might be tempted to do as a pre-emptive move.

It is strange that there is no general concern among the people at the mounting tension and the hazards of a nuclear war. That is probably due to the low level of knowledge and awareness of the dangers of radiation. In fact, the political parties and the media, which should know better, are whipping up a war psychosis and militant nationalism which will only encourage the government to throw all restraint to the wind.

Chaghai instilled a sense of false confidence in defence planners in Islamabad. From the revelations made by Bruce Riedel, the special assistant to President Clinton for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs at the US National Security Council, it appears that Pakistan was actually preparing to use its nuclear missiles in the Kargil war in 1999 when India threatened, out of sheer desperation, to broaden the theatre of the conflict.

The most negative impact of Chaghai has been that it has robbed Islamabad of the incentive to try hard enough for a politically negotiated settlement of its disputes with India. We have attempted to bargain as though we hold the high ground — when we don’t militarily, politically or economically. We have a strong moral case in Kashmir no doubt, but by now we should know that morality without tangible strength on the ground takes one nowhere.

Paradoxically, the nuclear explosions only weakened us in the areas where we needed to consolidate ourselves. They started off an arms race, which has forced us to divert more and more of our measly economic resources towards defence. The defence budget has shot up from Rs 131.3 billion in 1997-98 to Rs 152.7 billion in 1999-2000 to plateau at Rs 131.6 billion in 2001-02 (budgeted — actual figures are disclosed three years later).

And how has this impacted on the national economy? Pakistan was subject to sanctions for more than three years until 9/11 came to our rescue and the government’s willingness to cooperate with the Americans in their war against terrorism rehabilitated Islamabad’s status in Washington. But three years were enough to undermine the economy. As Shaukat Aziz, the federal finance minister, has now admitted, poverty has increased because of the declining growth rates — 4.2 per cent in 1998-99, 3.9 per cent in 1999-2000 and 2.4 per cent in 2000-2001.

Since we cannot boast of a strong tradition of research in the health sciences and sustainable environment, no effort has been made to evaluate the effects of the Chaghai tests on the ecology, climate, natural resources and the health of the people. Press reports and random surveys give the impression that the incidence of cancer is on the rise.

Widespread drought has affected food production. In the absence of scientific research and surveys there is no way of confirming if this could be related to the Chaghai blasts. One just knows that the ‘silent winter’, a byproduct of nuclear explosions, is known to produce similar effects, and at Chaghai the mountain died, to use Eqbal Ahmed’s anguished words.

Being a smaller state and having weakened ourselves with our own follies, we want to deal with India on equal terms. We proceeded to create a nuclear capability, which we planned to use in times of crisis without as much as drawing up the rules of the nuclear game with our adversary.

True, it was India which set the ball rolling by detonating its nuclear devices, but was Pakistan obliged to follow suit against all sane considerations and sensible advice?

Chaghai only made us bolder and more reckless. A number of opportunities came for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in the region. There was Mr Vajpayee’s famous bus journey to Lahore in February, 1999. There was the ceasefire in the Kashmir valley in 2000 and the summit at Agra. But at no stage did the government attempt to address the root cause of the immediate crisis, namely, the militants who reportedly infiltrate into the valley to cause violence there. Their action has all along had the potential of becoming a casus belli and yet we did not try to hold them back.

India says that these militants will be the target of “surgical” strikes. President Bush has set the precedent when he attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan. If Islamabad is expecting Washington to intervene and act as a restraining force, it might be disappointed this time. We have forgotten the lesson of Kargil, when Pakistan was forced to withdraw its forces under American pressure.

On this occasion too Mr Vajpayee may be allowed to proceed with his unholy plans. After all, the Americans have no love for the Islamic militants either and it would be expedient to allow New Delhi to do the dirty work of cleaning them up without incurring the odium the US did when it attacked Afghanistan.

President Musharraf insists that the militants in Kashmir are not operating from our side of the border. If that is so and he is sincere about avoiding a war, the president should heed the sensible suggestion a newly-launched daily from Lahore gave last week.

Pakistan should offer to unilaterally pull back its forces from the LoC, create a demilitarized zone on Pakistan’s side of the Line and ask the UN for international monitors to be stationed there. This will rob India of the pretext to attack.