Pakistan's dilemma

Published : May 23, 1998 00:00 IST

AFTER the initial surprise and shock, Pakistan has devoted all its energies to responding effectively to the nuclear tests conducted by India. If Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan is to be believed, a test by Pakistan is "almost certain". The question is when. In contrast to Ayub Khan's strong statements, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's approach has been cautious and statesmanlike, appealing to that half of the national psyche that fears the implications of joining the nuclear club. Sharif told a television interviewer on May 16 that Pakistan had "the capacity to respond effectively" to India's tests, but added, "the ideal thing would still be that Pakistan doesn't have to follow suit."

"We still want to show a sense of responsibility," he said. "We don't want to blindly follow the path of the Indians. We never wanted to." The following day, he told reporters in Lahore that he would order nuclear tests only if the international community took no action against India.

Pakistan has been placed in an unenviable situation by the Indian tests. Its carefully built-up nuclear deterrent, "recognised" by the Pressler Amendment, lies in tatters as its leadership grapples with complex security issues.

Pakistan's dilemma at one level is whether to test a nuclear device or not. Islamabad is aware that by conducting a counter nuclear test, it may well attract the attention of the international community on itself and India will be off the hook. "We will be doing India a favour if we go in for a test now," a retired Pakistani General told Frontline.

At a meeting of the Cabinet on May 15, sentiment was reportedly in favour of a quick test. Pakistani newspapers, however, said that Minister of Finance Sartaj Aziz had warned about the devastating effect of international sanctions that would certainly follow a test, and urged, "Let's wait and see."

Some Pakistani business leaders share Aziz's fears and are quietly lobbying against a quick nuclear test, warning that the sanctions that it would lead to could devastate the economy. Pakistan only recently presented international donors with a list of development projects for which it seeks an assistance of $1.69 billion. Nearly all of the projects would have to be scrapped if Pakistan were punished.

In opposition to this, a large number of Pakistanis want an effective reply to India's "belligerence". Common people, too, share the opinion that a "big, bad neighbour" has triggered the nuclear race once again and Pakistan cannot be left behind. Zafar Iqbal Cheema, the influential Chairman of the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at Quaid-e-Azim University in Islamabad, said: "The Government must immediately work out a plan for a credible response, which should include testing a fission nuclear device, a thermonuclear device and a sub-kiloton test. If Pakistan prolongs its response, this would create suspicion about its nuclear capability."

A former Foreign Secretary, Tanvir Ahmed Khan, said the most important task before Pakistan is the "rehabilitation and restabilisation" of its nuclear deterrent, which stood eroded and devalued following the Indian tests. He said that it was not enough that Pakistan merely carried out a test; it should also have a credible delivery system. He added,"Today it is not just a question of minimum deterrence, but of sufficient deterrence."

Khan, like most other Pakistanis, said that he was not convinced that the United States was not aware of "what was happening" in Pokhran prior to the first set of Indian tests on May 11. "I don't buy the fairy tales that they (the U.S.) were hoodwinked."

He was critical of Pakistan's reactive policies towards India. "We have always linked our responses to India. In the past, we have said if India signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the morning, we will do it in the afternoon."

Lt. Gen. Nishat Ahmed (retd), chief of the Institute of Regional Studies, linked the Indian tests to the domestic political compulsions of the BJP-led Government.

Dr. Shireen Mazari, a known "hawk", however, stated that by conducting the serial nuclear tests India had called Pakistan's "bluff": the question was whether Pakistan had the nuclear capability or not.

In the meantime, Pakistan has launched a media offensive against the international community for not paying heed to its warnings about India's intentions in the nuclear field ever since the BJP-led coalition assumed power in New Delhi. In a letter to the Group of Eight (G-8) leaders, Nawaz Sharif said on May 13:

"I had, in April 1998, drawn your attention to the consequences that would ensue from India's induction of nuclear weapons. We are disappointed that our warnings were not heeded. The latest events have proven us completely right. We are once again being asked to exercise restraint at an extremely critical juncture on matters involving national security and survival. I trust that you would recognise and be receptive to Pakistan's legitimate needs for self-defence.

"... The BJP Government has already made its aggressive designs against Pakistan a fundamental article of its policy agenda. In recent days it has taken steps to implement its the face of these ominous developments which pose an immediate threat to our security, we cannot be expected to remain complacent."

While dealing with the U.S.-led international community, it has become clear that Pakistan is in no position to surrender its nuclear options. Domestic public opinion, pressure from the elite, and fears about its own security make it likely that Islamabad will come up with a matching response to India's tests.

Pakistan gave no assurances to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and his team, which flew into Islamabad for a day of hectic talks on May 15, that it would not carry out a test.

The U.S. officials said after their meetings that Pakistani leaders were facing the fateful decision with "a sense of anguish". An official said: "Pakistan has a very, very tough choice here. We all felt a sense of the seriousness with which the Prime Minister and others with whom we spoke are grappling with it. It's our hope that Pakistan will resolve the dilemma it faces by making itself part of the solution and not willy-nilly part of the problem."

Although Pakistani leaders did not say precisely what gestures from the outside world would persuade them not to go ahead with nuclear testing, U.S. officials said Pakistan hoped for a lifting of the U.S. restrictions on military aid as well as diplomatic support in their disputes with India.

However, a "deal" with the U.S. does not appear to be on the cards. Even if the deal was attractive, Pakistan does not believe that the U.S. is a reliable friend. So, for Nawaz Sharif to follow the line suggested by U.S. President Bill Clinton is a difficult, if not impossible, task.

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