Pakistan's nuclear dilemma

Print edition : April 14, 2001

The military government in Pakistan is moving to downplay its nuclear image and join the CTBT regime in order to tide over its economic downturn.

AFTER the May 28, 1998 nuclear tests at Chagai, which came in response to India's Pokhran nuclear explosions on May 11, Pakistan came to pride itself as a member of the elite club of nuclear capable nations. It also sought to see itself as the leader of the ulema - the Muslim world.

Pakistan's Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The CTBT issue is on top of his government's agenda, given the economic benefits to be reaped for the country.-REUTERS

But condemnation from all over the world, and more important, economic sanctions imposed by a number of countries, soon tempered Pakistan's nuclear pride. Three years down the line, there is a growing realisation in Pakistan of the need to address the concerns of the international community on various nuclear issues, though the overwhelming opinion in Pakistan continues to favour a minimum credible nuclear deterrence. This is a need it felt particularly in the absence of balance in the matter of conventional weapons vis-a-vis its main enemy - India.

No regime in Pakistan can be faulted for harping on the theme of minimum credible deterrence. The country has serious domestic and security compulsions. But the after-effects of the nuclear tests particularly on the economy have been so severe that the military government was compelled to initiate concrete steps to allay the apprehensions of the world community regarding Pakistan's status as a nuclear state.

In recent months, there has been frantic activity in the corridors of the military headquarters on nuclear-related issues. In the second week of March the military government announced the retirement of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered to be the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, from active service along with the Chairman of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Ishfaq Ahmed. Qadeer Khan, who headed the Khan Research Laboratories, has been associated with the country's nuclear programme for the last 27 years and has been credited with all the major achievements of Pakistan in the nuclear field. The 64-year-old scientist had been given many an extension of tenure and yet no government in the past had dared to tell him that it was time to pack up his bags.

Political and religious parties reacted angrily to the retirement order. And as the furore over the issue reached a crescendo, Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf had to assert repeatedly at every available forum that his government would not compromise on the security of the country and that Pakistan's nuclear programme was irreversible. There were few takers for the explanation from the government that Qadeer Khan was actually being moved up as adviser to the Chief Executive with Cabinet member status. The general feeling was that it was a move aimed to please the West which is bent on committing Pakistan to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and thereby halt its ambitious nuclear weaponisation programme.

Indeed there is some merit in the arguments of the critics of the military government on Qadeer Khan's removal from the helm of Pakistan's nuclear affairs. The Musharraf government faces a serious dilemma on the CTBT issue. Economic rather than political considerations have forced it to give serious thought to the potentially explosive issue. For instance, Japan has dangled the carrot of annual aid amounting to over $500 million if Pakistan joined the CTBT bandwagon. The just-concluded Pakistan Development Forum (PDF), a consortium of Western lending and aid agencies, also sent out clear signals to the military regime that it better become part of the CTBT regime if it is keen on their help; otherwise it should be prepared to be counted out.

The military government is more than inclined to append its signature to the Treaty, though under the new dispensation in Washington Pakistan no longer faces any pressure from the United States on CTBT. But what holds it back is the stiff resistance of the religious lobby, particularly the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. His removal from the helm of Pakistan's nuclear affairs is seen as a move to please the West on the nuclear issue.-B.K. BANGASH/AP

The Musharraf government's dilemma stems essentially from India's reluctance to sign the CTBT. The stated position of the Pakistani establishment is that it has no objection in principle to the CTBT and that it is keeping its options open only in order to ensure that India does not take advantage of the situation.

The Finance and Foreign Ministers in the Musharraf government tried unsuccessfully towards the end of 2000 to push Musharraf to agree to the Treaty. After a sustained campaign in favour of the CTBT, the Ministers beat a hasty retreat and took cover under the excuse of 'lack of national consensus'.

The issue is in the spotlight once again with the unambiguous message from the PDF and the recent visit of Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar to Tokyo. While in Japan Sattar gave the impression that Pakistan might sign the Treaty before India does so, but soon corrected himself with the statement that it may not be possible for Islamabad to join the CTBT club before the general elections in Pakistan scheduled for October 2002.

A letter from Gen. Musharraf that the Foreign Minister handed over to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori reportedly makes the plea for an appreciation of the domestic compulsions of the military regime on the issue of the Treaty. In response, Mori told Sattar that he hoped Pakistan would soon make progress on limiting its nuclear capability and that such progress would allow Japan to give 'comprehensive aid' to the country.

Speaking to presspersons after his meeting with Mori, Sattar said that "there is a strong opinion in Pakistan that we should wait to make the decision until after the general election".

The decision to shift Khan and his colleague in the Atomic Energy Commission was preceded by an ordinance in January this year for the establishment of a Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA). Prior to this a National Command Authority (NCA), which is vested with the command and control of nuclear weapons, was set up.

These actions were seen as a response to the concerns of the international community on nuclear safety management. From time to time apprehensions have surfaced about these nuclear weapons passing into the hands of 'extremist' elements. Hence perhaps it was no coincidence that the first publicised meeting of the NCA in the fourth week of March took place at General Headquarters (GHQ), Pakistan's military headquarters. A brief official statement on the meeting made it a point to mention that the NCA, presided by Gen. Musharraf, undertook a comprehensive review of important security matters relevant to Pakistan's nuclear policy. "The regional and international security issues both in the context of the short- and long-term objectives were also addressed".

Obviously issues such as Pakistan's nuclear capability vis-a-vis India, and the CTBT would have dominated the agenda of the meeting. And though there was no indication as to how exactly the military regime intends to sell the merits of joining the CTBT regime, particularly to the domestic audience, it is clear that the CTBT issue is on top of its agenda given the economic benefits to be reaped.

NOTWITHSTANDING the economic squeeze it experienced in the aftermath of the nuclear explosions, there is little doubt that Pakistan has done the maximum possible to consolidate its nuclear programme in the last three years. This is evident from the extensive research paper that has appeared in the London-based Jane's Intelligence Review on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan.

The journal said that Pakistan had edged past India in the nuclear arms race. It said that unlike India whose nuclear programme got bogged down due to internal politics, international pressures and its own unique security concerns, Pakistan's programme flourished unfettered under the direct control and command of the military.

The review noted that in contrast to India's nuclear programme, Pakistan's programme is controlled by the Army and has therefore been fully incorporated into the country's overall military strategy.

"Pakistan's officials believe that Islamabad's nuclear capability gives it the option of strongly supporting insurgents across the border in Kashmir. This view is based on the belief that Delhi would not dare hit back with a strong conventional strike for fear of escalation to nuclear exchange," the review said. It also has reported that "for their part, Indian leaders privately explain that they do not believe Pakistan would resort to using nuclear weapons, even if India were to strike Pakistan. It is this dichotomy of thinking about the potential use of nuclear weapons in South Asia that U.S. officials say poses the greatest danger".

The assessment in Jane's Intelligence Review would have pleased the military establishment. While Pakistan is compelled to address the concerns of the international community arising out of its position as a nuclear state, it cannot be expected to do anything that would deprive it of the 'parity' with India it has achieved after a gap of over five decades.

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