'Deterrence will not always work'

Published : Jun 08, 2002 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is a nuclear physicist who teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. He is the recipient of several professional awards for scientific research. He has written and spoken extensively on topics ranging from science in Islam, to issues of education in Pakistan and nuclear disarmament. He produced a 13-part documentary series in Urdu for Pakistan Television on critical issues in education, and two other major television series aimed at popularising science. In this interview with Mohammad Shehzad conducted in Islamabad, Dr. Hoodbhoy speaks on the dark side of the nuclear weapons in the backdrop of current Pakistan-India tension. Possession of nuclear weapons gave Pakistan a false sense of confidence and security, encouraging it into adventurism in Kashmir and initiating a war, he says. Excerpts:

Have nuclear weapons brought more security or more insecurity to this region?

The evidence is unambiguous - since the nuclear tests of 1998, we have witnessed two full-blown India-Pakistan confrontations. During the Kargil crisis in 1999, we now know, the Pakistan Army - without the knowledge of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - had mobilised its nuclear-tipped missile fleet. Presumably the Indians were also in a high state of nuclear readiness. The present crisis is yet more dangerous, with India breathing fire and preparing for what it calls 'limited war'. Prime Minister Vajpayee has exhorted his troops in Kashmir to prepare for sacrifice and 'decisive victory'.

Do you think that the subcontinent would have been less violent without nuclear weapons?

Absolutely so. Bellicose, aggressive behaviour has increased sharply since 1998 with the Kargil war being one consequence. In fact, this war will be recorded by historians as the first that was actually caused by nuclear weapons. Possession of nuclear weapons gave Pakistan a false sense of confidence and security, encouraging it into adventurism in Kashmir and initiating a war. Interestingly enough, the Indians shot themselves in the foot by forcing Pakistan to bring out its nuclear weapons into the open. Now they realise that their options in Kashmir are sharply limited, and the risk of mutual annihilation is a very real one.

Today, in spite of General Musharraf's speech of January 12, there is little doubt that militant camps continue to shelter under Pakistan's nuclear umbrella. They are a curse not only to India but also for Pakistan and its civil society. If the September 11 event had not occurred, they would have been stronger still. Sectarian Islamic groups have slaughtered hundreds of innocents in the last two years, including over a hundred doctors in Karachi.

You seem to agree that Pakistan's nuclear weapons have deterred India from attacking it?

There is little doubt that Pakistan's nuclear weapons stopped India from attacking after the December 13 attack by jehadists on the Indian Parliament. So in that sense I agree with you that deterrence did work. It also worked in 1999, and perhaps also in the crises of 1990 and 1987. But will it always work? Islamic jehadists - who must be considered a third force that now operates independently of the Pakistani state - crave for a full-scale war between the two countries. They could easily commit some huge atrocity which turns India into a mad bull dashing blindly into a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

While Pakistani and Indian hawks, who pose as 'strategic analysts' and 'experts', loudly trumpet that deterrence has been proven to work, events since 1998 have completely falsified their predictions. Their published claims had been that overt nuclearisation would create a stable 'balance of terror', making it impossible for either country even to think of attacking the other. They had also predicted smaller expenditures on defence since minimal deterrence had been established. But, as we stand on the brink of a war and in the middle of a full-blown arms race, honesty should compel them to eat their words.

Making an atomic bomb is perceived in Pakistan as a miracle. Is it really a wonder in the world of science?

The first atomic bomb was really a tremendous scientific and technological achievement. It required the finest minds in the world to smash the atom and to get the energy out of it and to create a self-sustaining chain reaction. But no longer! Now you have all this information in books, in journals, and even on the Internet. So today, almost any country in the world, leave aside Somalia and Rwanda, can make bombs. The only thing that you need is money.

At a public seminar on May 20 in Islamabad, one participant said that losing a conventional war was preferable to unleashing a nuclear holocaust. What do you say to this?

This makes eminent sense because states can lose conventional wars and re-emerge stronger. Japan and Germany are examples of countries which suffered greatly in the Second World War, but went on to become leading powers again. On the other hand, if India used nuclear weapons on Pakistan, or vice versa, it would take hundreds of years to recover. Remember, it won't be just one or two bombs as in Japan, but dozens.

Is India not responsible for the nuclearisation of South Asia?

Yes, and it is not just the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindutva who are responsible. The Indian nuclear programme goes back to the time of Partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister, and Homi Bhabha, the head of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission and a brilliant scientist, conceived making India a nuclear power. The China-India clash in 1962 gave the appropriate pretext, and we saw the results in 1974. But although India is clearly responsible for driving the nuclear rivalry, Pakistan's aims have shifted considerably. To counter India's nuclear weapons has become secondary. Instead, it seeks to use nuclear weapons to achieve foreign policy objectives. There is now the religious dimension too - Pakistan's Islamic parties have claimed the bomb for Islam.

There is a fear in the minds of many people here that the anti-nuclear lobby in Pakistan wants unilateral renunciation of the nuclear option. Do you support this idea of unilateral disarmament?

I am definitely anti-nuclear, but I don't believe unilateral nuclear disarmament by Pakistan at this stage is either possible or desirable. Instead, we need a set of graduated steps by which both India and Pakistan first make their arsenals safer and less useable, and then rapidly move towards their reduction and elimination. The current trend of building more bombs and missiles must be reversed.

In which country is the anti-nuclear lobby stronger: India or Pakistan?

Definitely in India! After the Indian tests, there were protests in all major cities of the country - Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai - which were attended by thousands of people. I wish we could mobilise a fraction of that. India has a more dynamic and vibrant civil society than ours.

This region seems to be on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. How can we move away from this madness?

First, we need to understand what nuclear weapons do. As we sit over here in Islamabad at the Quaid-e-Azam University - just a mile away from the Presidency and Parliament - just think of what an Indian nuclear attack would mean for us. Fortunately, you and I shall have vapourised in a matter of moments. But people who are at a distance of a few miles from the centre of the explosion won't be so lucky. They too will die, but slowly and painfully from physical injury, radiation sickness, poisoning, cancer or the other horrible ways by which atom bombs inflict death and destruction. The public in Pakistan and India need to be informed that there are no winners in a nuclear war, and no cause great enough to justify fighting one.

Can civil defence be effective in the case of nuclear attack?

It cannot reverse tragedy, but definitely can help reduce suffering. Therefore, it is absolutely irresponsible for governments not to make effective provision for civil defence. Imagine that a nuclear weapon has been dropped on a city. Is there any pre-planning about how that city's wounded would be evacuated, and to where? How would the survivors be supplied with non-radioactive food and water? Civil defence here is a complete joke. Today's newspaper carries an item that the total yearly funds earmarked for the Civil Defence Organisation is two million rupees, and even this has not been received yet. Like ostriches, we bury our head in the sand and think that the danger is not there!

To what extent are our nuclear arsenals safe? Are we still vulnerable to a mishap such as the one that occurred at Ojhri Camp, where Central Intelligence Agency-supplied ammunition blew up in the city of Rawalpindi and killed a thousand people?

An assembled nuclear weapon can detonate if there is a fire, accidental explosion, or an airplane carrying the weapon crashes. This nightmare scenario led U.S. nuclear weapon designers to struggle for ten years or more to develop what are called 'one-point safe' nuclear weapons. Pakistani and Indian weapons are unlikely to have these very elaborate safety features, and so the danger of mishaps is non-negligible. Given how prone we are to accidents and sabotage - as evidenced in the Ojhri Camp tragedy of 1987 or the Bhopal gas tragedy - I think there is real reason for worry.

How dangerous is the present crisis in nuclear terms?

In times of crisis, everybody gets nervous. This increases the possibility that wrong information, or deliberate misinformation, could lead to the release of either a missile or an aircraft carrying nuclear weapons. These horrific possibilities become more likely as the level of tension rises and as the size of the two nuclear arsenals increases by the year. We are likely to survive this crisis. I don't know about the next one, or the one after that. The chances are bleak unless we get rid of these terrible toys.

What are the chances of a global nuclear disarmament?

Miserable for the moment! U.S. unilateralism is set to destroy any and all arms control treaties, except those that clearly favour the U.S. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Land Mines Treaty... all have been torpedoed by President Bush. Worse, in January this year, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was leaked to the public. This document is obscene and utterly immoral! It calls for the development of operational strategies that would allow the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. even against those states which do not possess nuclear, chemical, biological or other weapons of mass destruction. Special purpose nuclear weapons such as bunker busters and deep penetration weapons are being developed. Global nuclear arms control is dead - George W. Bush shot and killed it.

How difficult has it been for you to criticice the establishment, being a sort of government servant?

It is not easy at times, the pressure exists. But Pakistan is a more tolerant society than many people think. We have a military regime but it is not oppressive if compared with the draconian regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. Our English language press is probably just as free as the press in India. It is able to criticise Pakistani leaders very directly, without mincing words. This is a sign of hope that Pakistan is not a hopeless case where all its people are brainwashed. But there is a dark side too - Pakistan TV and the Urdu press, which reach many more people than English newspapers, unabashedly promote xenophobia.

You were chosen for the prestigious Pakistani award, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz. Why did you refuse to accept it?

Because I do not consider the process by which awards are given as carrying legitimacy. If you give someone an award in a field of science, only a panel of scientists should decide whether that person deserves it or not. A bureaucrat should not have the right to decide that a person - A or B or C - is worthy of some award. The present procedure serves only to create a culture of sycophancy that rewards flatterers.

Jean Dreze in The Hindu (May 27) quoted a senior Indian defence analyst, K. Subrahmanyam, who said that Indians could still sleep in peace because if Pakistani fingers come anywhere near the nuclear button the U.S. Army will "disarm" Pakistan's nuclear facilities through surgical strikes. What do you say about this?

It is dangerous, and complete nonsense. Pakistan has once again become a client state of the US, but there are definite limits on the pressure that the U.S. can exert upon Pakistan. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. would have knowledge of where the Pakistani nukes are located at any given moment, much less have the will or capacity to destroy them. Remember that nukes mounted on missiles are on mobile launchers and can be moved anywhere in times of crisis. Trying to destroy nukes is something no nation has ever attempted, and the chances of success are very poor.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment