To go nuclear or not is the question

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE suspension of American aid to Pakistan has produced one positive result. It has for the first time brought into the open the nuclear debate in this country.

Given the categorical linkage Washington instituted between the flow of economic assistance to Pakistan and nuclear non-prolif eration, Islamabad never encouraged a public discussion on the atom bomb.

To use Stephen Cohen’s term, a policy of ‘designed ambiguity’ was adopted. In other words, the capacity and the will of the government to go nuclear are deliberately kept ambivalent.

The traditional policy was to deny the military dimension of the country’s nuclear programme which is described as being indispensable for the energy needs of the economy. Any suggestion that the bomb technology was in the process of being developed was vehemently denied.

Now that aid has been suspended, more open discussion of the issue is possible. Though technically speaking there has been no change in the official position, the general belief has emerged that Pakistan possesses the technical know-how to manufacture a nuclear device. Only a political decision is needed to proceed with the weaponisation of the programme.

Hence there has been talk in some circles about the importance of exploring the nuclear option. At the recent FRIENDS seminar in Islamabad some speakers strongly urged the government to adopt as its goal a policy of nuclearisation.

Even the issue of signing or not signing the NPT has now begun to be discussed not in terms of its hypothetical merits and demerits but its actual impact on the government’s nuclear programme.

What is significant in this emerging debate is that the somewhat muted anti-bomb lobby which has always existed in Pakistan has failed to respond equally assertively, giving the impression that we are a nation of warmongers. Why?

First, the United States has been so vocal in voicing its opposition to the A-bomb in Pakistan that any one questioning the wisdom of acquiring nuclear arms runs the risk of being branded an American agent.

Conventionally the peace lobbies the world over have challenged the military-industrial complex which fuels the arms race. The largest of this is in the US.

In Pakistan peace lobbyists face a basic contradiction. America’s ham-handed approach on the issue ever since Dr Henry Kissinger threatened to make a ‘horrible example of Pakistan’ has evoked an upsurge of patriotic sentiments in this country.Hence the reluctance to uphold the American stand on the issue.

Secondly, since India has been identified as the main enemy which is the target of Pakistan’s strategic planning, it has been difficult for anyone to advocate a policy of disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. This has been perceived as being tantamount to abject surrender to India.

But the fact is that the peace lobby in Pakistan is equally concerned about national security and is more sensitive to the human needs of the people.

Given the reordering of international equations and the more relaxed political climate that has emerged in the post-cold war period, the time has arrived for some rethinking on the bomb issue in Pakistan.

The question must be analysed from two perspectives, namely, the economic and the strategic. In economic terms, the question to be posed is: can we afford nuclear weapons? For nuclear weapon to decisively influence our strategic capability and military strength, they must be possessed in sufficient numbers and must be supported by the necessary delivery system. All this would cost an enormous amount of money.

As it is our burgeoning defence expenditure has left little funds for the socio-economic development of the people. Some statistics are quite revealing. Pakistan is spending six per cent of its GNP on defence. India, which is our proclaimed enemy, spends 3.2 per cent. This is, of course, more in absolute terms since its GNP is seven times bigger. But this also means New Delhi has much more to spend on other sectors.

The negative impact of our high defence expenditure is reflected in the poor record of our spending on education and health. Pakistan spends only 0.4 per cent of the GNP on health and 2.2 per cent on education. India spends 0.9 per cent on health and 3.1 per cent on education.

It is plain that the process of nuclearisation — acquiring nuclear capability, assembling the bomb and putting together a delivery system — is an expensive proposition. Given the state of our national economy and the socio-economic underdevelopment of our people — they rank 120th on the Human Development Index devised by the UNDP — it is difficult to justify a decision to go nuclear, that is, if one is taken.

Even a policy of ‘designed ambiguity’ requires a nuclear programme of a technologically high level. This is in itself not an inexpensive proposition. Seen from the strategic perspective, the idea of acquiring nuclear arms can be quite self-defeating. The military objective of a programme of weaponisation has never been defined. But it would presumably be designed to counter India’s nuclear capability, which has not been declared either. It is also believed that nuclear arms would serve as a counterweight to India’s superiority in the sphere of conventional weapons.

There are some who argue that nuclear arms would also confer on Pakistan an equal status with India in international forums and enable it to negotiate with New Delhi from a position of strength. This should inject a measure of stability in Indo-Pakistan relations, it is argued.

Theoretically these premises might appear to be sound. But in actual fact this result might not be attainable. Pakistan would have to possess a substantial number of atomic weapons to create the necessary impact on the strategic balance. This will be beyond its reach, given its resource constraints and its relatively narrow economic and technological base.

The present state of ambiguity in the nuclear programmes of the two countries is very dangerous for peace in the region. It introduces an element of instability in their relations. In such a situation even a balance of terror does not operate between them. There is nothing to deter them from using their conventional weapons either. However, if the two countries declare their nuclear status, the situation will be no different. There would ensue a deadly nuclear arms race in South Asia. It would be some time before a balance of terror is achieved. Until then the region will be dangerously destabilised.

Moreover, that would not preclude the use of conventional weapons, if not directly then by proxy. The political confrontation that would be inevitable when a nuclear arms race is triggered would make conciliation impossible. The situation will be compounded by social unrest and instability in both countries which will be inevitable when enormous funds are diverted from the already starved social and economic sectors to the nuclear weapons programme.

Indo-Pakistan relations have been characterised by a long history of hostility and mistrust. As the bigger power India has failed to show the magnanimity of spirit that is essential to reassure its smaller neighbours. Hence the charges of hegemonic ambitions that have been levelled against it. Pakistan, on its part, by striving for strategic parity with a state several times bigger in size and resources than itself has come to accept the burden of an adversarial and competitive relationship with India.

It is time the two countries moved towards changing this pattern in their ties. Their leaderships must make a beginning by explicitly agreeing not to politicise their ties. When they whip up popular passions on this question they play a dangerous game.

In this context, a clear-cut policy pronouncement by Pakistan on the renunciation of the nuclear option would put the pressure on India to do likewise. The ground may thus be prepared for multilateral negotiations on a nuclear-weapons free zone in South Asia. The opportunity could also be used for working out a conventional arms-cut arrangement between the two countries.

In any case, Pakistan should not hesitate to make unilateral moves. Given the worldwide trend towards relaxation of tension and disengagement from military confrontation, these are likely to generate enough moral pressure for a change in the security environment in the subcontinent.

When diplomacy fails it is replaced by force. War, as Clausewitz said, is a continuation of politics by other means. But a state with an astute foreign policy, based on vision and conducted with flexibility, realism and an ability to adjust and modulate, does not have to rely on military force to protect its independence.

Now is the time for Pakistan to reorder its national priorities so that the emphasis is on diplomacy and political negotiations as the instrument for the management of our power relationship with India.

It must be noted that military capability is only one element of state power. The other, more important, ones are national cohesion, human resources, internal organisation and economic strength. If military power detracts from the strength of the other elements, a situation could arise which would weaken the nation from within and lead to its collapse. Military power would not save it then.

Source: Dawn, 09-11-1991