Pakistan's Turn

30 May, 1998    ·   101

Michael Krepon discusses the constraints and opportunities faced by Pakistan in its impending decision to conduct nuclear tests

The following analysis was written shortly before Pakistan ’s five nuclear test blasts of 28 May 1998.



The three-cornered nuclear and missile competition among India , Pakistan , and China has entered new, dangerous terrain. Traditional pillars of US non-proliferation policy have fallen with India 's nuclear tests. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi has opened a new chapter of nuclear and Hindu nationalism in South Asia , complete with street celebrations in favour of the bomb. Pakistan 's celebrations are awaited.



By testing five nuclear devices, the Government of India has handed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif the choice between two losing propositions: Pakistan can test a device after which it would forfeit new support from international financial institutions that now keeps the country from going into default. Or Nawaz Sharif can refrain from testing and be ridiculed at home as jeopardising national security to please Uncle Sam and the International Monetary Fund.



By exercising restraint, Pakistan could hope to isolate India diplomatically and revamp relations with the United States that have been mired in sanctions dating back to the Bush Administration, triggered when Pakistan crossed a key threshold for producing bomb-making nuclear material. Clinton Administration officials are now suggesting a renewed understanding for Pakistan 's security dilemma, beginning with the release of twenty-eight F-16 fighter aircraft impounded at that time. The credibility of US promises, however, is widely suspect in Pakistan. After all, it has been almost three years since President Bill Clinton publicly pledged to then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that Pakistan deserved either its planes or its money back. The administration and the Congress have provided neither.



The Government of Pakistan now dismisses the value of the F-16s and other military transfers, calling instead for credible security assurances from the Unites States and China. Beijing , however, has long criticized the extension of the US nuclear umbrella into Asia , and would find it difficult to reverse course. Nor is Washington prepared to offer such a guarantee, which would likely reinforce Pakistani activism across the line of control dividing Kashmir , which has been the source of two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since independence. A Pakistani-supported insurgency has been underway since 1989 in what Islamabad calls Indian-held Kashmir . Small arms fire and artillery exchanges are a regular occurrence across this dividing line.



India 's nuclear testing has opened up new possibilities for Pakistani-Chinese co-operation short of a nuclear umbrella, with Beijing officials now reaffirming support for their beleaguered ally. Thus, by holding the nuclear card close to the vest, Nawaz could hope to strengthen ties with Beijing as well as Washington . In reopening a military supply relationship with the United States , Pakistan would also avoid embarrassing China , since testing a device of Chinese design would clarify the extent of Beijing 's earlier disregard for international norms against proliferation.



New Delhi has far more to lose if Pakistan exercises restraint than if it tests. India 's new government believes that, among other purposes, nuclear testing has provided negotiating leverage with the United States , perhaps opening spigots of advanced technology with defense applications. If, instead, New Delhi 's test series results in a re-opening of the US-Pakistani military supply relationship, improved Chinese-Pakistani ties, and higher barriers to Indo-US co-operation, India would be thrice injured.



Despite the gains that would accrue to Pakistan by exercising restraint, powerful constituencies within Pakistan are now laying the groundwork for nuclear testing. Pakistan 's outgoing Foreign Minister, Gohar Ayub Khan, has repeatedly announced that Pakistan 's decision to test was not a question of whether, but of when. Gohar Ayub Khan is perceived to have close links with the Pakistani military leadership, which has been the arbiter of every fateful decision in the country's troubled history. Nawaz Sharif's domestic political opposition leader and nemesis, Benazir Bhutto, has helped set the tenor of domestic debate by calling for nuclear tests and a pre-emptive strike against Indian nuclear facilities.



The presumed power of "the street" in Pakistani politics has yet to be heard from. Street demonstrations have usually been well-scripted affairs by political parties, not a genuine revolution from below. Pro-western Pakistanis, however, have long warned of a possible sea-change in Pakistan 's orientation, given popular resentment to a long list of perceived US slights and misdeeds by the country's narrow ruling class. Until now, Islamic political parties have fared poorly in national polls.



A thoughtful debate over testing is now underway among the Pakistani elite, but popular grievances of all kinds are on the rise—against India , the United States , international financial institutions, and succeeding Pakistani governments that have failed to address worsening domestic problems. Centrifugal forces, sectarian violence, and scape-goating are again on the rise. Against this dreary landscape, nuclear weapons represent a shining source of national pride.