Will Pakistan Test? The View from Islamabad
Op-Ed, Global Beat Issue Brief, issue 35
May 19, 1998
Will Pakistan Test? The View from Islamabad
by Farah Zahra
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says there has been no decision on a Pakistani test. But Foreign Minister Gohar A. Khan's statement this Sunday that it was not a question of "if, but when" has been supported by US satellite intelligence showing great activity in the Chagai hills, Pakistan's alleged test site.
India's nuclear tests last week resonated with deafening force in Pakistan. The country is now consumed by outrage at India and by the Pakistani Government's ambitions to prove its own nuclear capability. The leader of the small but powerful fundamentalist Jamaat-i- Islami (Islamic Party) has called for an "immediate" response. Dr. Qadeer Khan, the head of Pakistan's nuclear program, said last week that "it is a question of hours and not days" for Pakistan to carry out nuclear tests.
Pakistani children burning Indian flags and youngsters shouting "Qadeer Khan bumb nikalo!" ("Qadeer Khan take out the bomb!") reflect clearly what the masses want Sharif to do. They are more conversant with the 'tit for tat' response to India than the dire economics of sanctions. For them sanctions are what US does already to Pakistan because of its nuclear weapons program.
Extremist elements in Pakistan have pressed for a test since the late 1980s, soon after Pakistan was known to possess bomb-making capabilities. Though the majority favored maintaining the status quo, i.e., an ambiguous nuclear posture, an overwhelming consensus also supported going ahead with a test if India should test again (as India reportedly made preparations to do in December 1995).
Though Prime Minister Sharif holds the biggest public mandate in Pakistan's history and faces no direct threat to his Government at the moment, he is well aware that sitting tight on the nuclear test decision will erode his popularity drastically. Former Prime Minister and Opposition Leader Benazir Bhutto's prediction on Monday that "Either Pakistan detonates a nuclear test device or it risks a possible war with India over Kashmir" was endorsed on Tuesday by Indian Home Minister Advani's threatening statements on Kashmir.
With all eyes focused on Sharif and his expected announcement that Pakistan will carry out nuclear explosions, it will be difficult for him to bargain over international aid and incentives that the Pakistani Government considers "too little, too late."
American Carrots and Sticks
In a joint telephone call on Monday evening with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Clinton told Prime Minister Sharif that "we do not want to see a reverse of a movement away from the nuclear precipice." An American delegation, headed by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and General Anthony Zinni, flew to Pakistan last week, but came away without any evidence to support Clinton's perception that Pakistan was moving away from conducting a test. The delegation did make it "very, very clear" to Pakistan that it would reap horrible consequences if it chose to conduct its nuclear test.
This visit was deja vu for Pakistan. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew to Pakistan in 1976 to deliver a similar warning that he would make "a horrible example" out of former president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan if Islamabad went ahead with a nuclear weapon program.
U.S. representatives appear not to have offered any concrete proposal, but rather suggested "possibilities" such as waiving the Pressler Amendment (which conditions U.S. aid to Pakistan on a presidential certification that Pakistan does not possess nuclear weapons); delivering F-16 fighter aircraft that Pakistan purchased from the United States several years ago, but which have been held up under the Pressler Amendment; and possibly some debt forgiveness.
The Clinton Administration appears to be focused primarily on preventing a Pakistani nuclear test, rather than on identifying tangible measures that might alleviate Pakistan's broader security concerns. The U.S. might do better with a more expansive approach. Former Federal Minister Chaudhary Anwer Aziz's view that US should offer some kind of a security umbrella, like those extended to Japan or Germany, may be a bit far-fetched, but UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also spoke this week of extending some kind of security guarantees to Pakistan.
From Islamabad, it appears that the United States is belatedly offering a warm hug which Pakistan may not be able to reciprocate. This inhibition may be a call for the U.S. to come up with more tangible economic and security alternatives to allay its fears vis a vis India. Pakistan remains wary of temporary warm hugs that turn quickly into cold shoulders in times of its crisis. Pakistani leaders remember well that American military assistance was withheld during its wars with India in 1965 and 1971.
Prime Minister Sharif has also charged that the United States is discriminating against Pakistan on the basis of religion, arguing that the US government "ignored" India's nuclear activities and sanctioned Pakistan's because "we are an Islamic country."
The Organization of Islamic Countries was quick to respond by expressing its solidarity with Pakistan after last week's Indian explosions. If the United States presses Pakistan against the wall by intensifying existing sanctions, it will risk pushing Pakistan towards its "Islamic brethren", raising the specter of nuclear technology transfers among states that US policy-makers view as international rogues.
The Economic Dimension
Pakistan's fragile economy is experiencing a serious balance of payments crisis and is heavily dependent on IMF monetary injections. Already the country is in danger of defaulting on its international obligations. A nuclear test by Pakistan, leading to an ongoing arms race with India, could easily lead to military spending commitments far beyond what its economy could sustain. Pakistani Finance Minister Sartaj Aziz's statements suggest that he is well aware of this risk. In this context, sanctions and aid withdrawals could cause a severe economic downturn.
In contrast, Indian analysts claim that U.S. sanctions (not including any monetary loss from the IMF and World Bank ) would merely amount to a 1 per cent loss of GNP. Some American analysts have even claimed that the sanctions would hurt the U.S. more than India. The European Union appears resolved not to isolate India, France and Russia oppose sanctions against India, and the Europeans seem ready to grab any Indian business from American companies frozen out by U.S. penalties. American business lobbyists are pressuring the Clinton administration to go soft on India because sanctions will hurt their investments. US statements are already hinting that if India signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Congress might be persuaded to remove the sanctions.
The Pakistan Government seems to understand that sanctions which might only pinch India could prove a deep bite into its own economy, with dire consequences.
Even so, political pressures at home will likely overwhelm such economic concerns. Any expectation that Sharif will settle for a pat on the back or mere removal of U.S. sanctions against Pakistan, rather than responding forcefully to the thunderous resonance of 5 nuclear tests conducted 70 km from its borders by Pakistan's arch rival, is misplaced.
A China Card?
Despite China's clandestine nuclear assistance to Pakistan, China's ongoing detente with India in the last decade has been a source of anxiety for Islamabad. Thus, even Indian Defense Minister Fernandes citing China as India's prime enemy, China's condemnation of the Indian tests, and the Indian rebuttal claims of Chinese "hypocrisy" has not been sufficiently reassuring for Pakistan as it views the explosive new threat from India.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed's visit to China, concluded today, was likely designed more to assess China's potential reaction to an escalating South Asian crisis than simply to push its diplomatic offensive against India. As Russian assistance to India increases, China may be more pivotal for Pakistan than the jubilant Arab states. Pakistan must know where China stands as Islamabad charts its own response to India, as well as preparing contingency plans for any ensuing crisis with India.
On Monday, Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani affirmed India's "resolve to deal firmly and strongly with Pakistan's hostile designs and activities in Kashmir," and solicited a more "pro-active" posture against Pakistan. Coming on the heels of Prime Minister Vajpayee's warnings that India could use nuclear weapons in case of "aggression from outside," this statement is viewed in Pakistan as an aggressive threat.
Indian analysts initially welcomed the prospect that Pakistan would conduct a nuclear test of its own in response to India's explosions. However, the Indian government was apparently taken aback by the suggestion in the New York Times yesterday that by refraining from testing, Pakistan could get its debts written off. This prospect runs counter to the scenario envisioned in New Delhi, in which Pakistan is expected eventually to collapse under the cost of trying to match India's military capabilities.
India's renewed vows to proceed with its nuclear weapons program despite sanctions, and to develop a new longer-range missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads, may well be intended to push Pakistan into carrying out a nuclear test. Even more dangerous are threats such as Advani's assertion cited above, which may be read as promising a nuclear strike on Pakistan if India tires of dealing with Islamabad. These alarmist statements are hopefully nothing more than India's best efforts to bring about a Pakistani test.
However, there is a long history of miscalculations and misinterpretations by Indian and Pakistani leaders seeking to enhance their security through steps that sent confusing signals and employed unnecessary tools. In 1987, large-scale Indian military exercises dangerously close to the Pakistani border prompted Pakistan to deploy its own military divisions in preparation for a war which was defused only at the very last minute.
A second such crisis nearly took place in May 1990, when fighting in Kashmir almost triggered a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan; the incident was defused by high-level U.S. intervention. South Asia has seen three full-fledged wars between India and Pakistan; an ongoing military conflict at the Indo-Pakistan border on the Siachen Glacier that has lasted for 16 years; and a so-called low-intensity conflict in Kashmir, coupled with violence sponsored by intelligence agencies across the Indo- Pakistani border.
Leaders in Islamabad believe that the world community has not fully grasped the implications of India's provocative tests, and of the even more provocative statements that have emanated from Delhi in their aftermath. Even more incomprehensible to Pakistanis are assertions from the U.S. State Department advising Pakistan that "it would be far better if they chose the diplomatic road, the high road."
Each day this road is getting steeper for Pakistan to climb in the face of inflammatory rhetoric and threats by India, which not only wants to force its way into the nuclear club, but also seeks an endorsement of its militaristic hegemony in South Asia. The higher the roads gets, the closer it may bring Pakistan to exploding its nuclear weapons. South Asia has no city of angels.
For more information about this publication please contact the STPP Web Manager at 617-496-1981.
For Academic Citation: