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Dangerous nuclear rivalry

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Talat Masood
Nearly two decades ago, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests on 28th May 1998. These were in response to India’s nuclear tests that had taken place two weeks earlier. The government touted it as a great achievement and the public went ecstatic. There was a reason for that “celebration”. When India exploded its bomb their public went wild and politicians and commentators were boastful that they had joined ranks of the five major powers. They were also taunting Pakistan that its programme was fake and provoking it to call its bluff. Despite enormous pressure from United States and other Western countries, the then PML government decided to go ahead and carried out six underground nuclear explosions—one more than the Indians. Similar scenes of joy and exaltation were experienced in Pakistan. The Indian public and politicians were embarrassed as they had thought they had monopoly of nuclear technology and expertise. Nineteen years later, however, the mood of the Pakistani nation is more sober and the government’s recall of the event more tempered. It shows that Pakistan has matured as a nuclear power and realises the huge responsibility that rests on it as a consequence of this capability. We also should not forget the enormous sacrifice that the nation had to make in order to acquire this capability. The world singularly was targeting Pakistan. It had a different yardstick for India and as regards Israel it was as though it had an inherent right to be a nuclear power. Nothing exposes the double standards of world powers as in respect of their applying one standard for India and Israel and a completely different one for others in case of acquisition of strategic power. By terming Pakistan’s nuclear capability as an Islamic bomb, the West exposed its outright prejudice. In all truth, the country’s power elite made serious errors of judgment that continue to haunt us to date. We are still paying the price for the irresponsible conduct of AQ Khan in dealing with sensitive nuclear matters. More so, a serious reappraisal of our entire foreign, defence and security policies was necessary to make it compatible with the new power that the country had acquired. The decision to support the Afghan Jihad had several dimensions. Desperate to seek legitimacy from the outside world, General Ziaul Haq joined the US-led coalition against the Soviet Union which provided him cover and more significantly acted as an umbrella to pursue the nuclear programme. Not that the Reagan administration or the CIA was not aware of the programme but they looked the other way. There was a greater and higher strategic goal of dismantling the Soviet empire that the US was pursuing and Pakistan was a convenient surrogate. In short, there was a convergence of interests and Pakistan took full advantage of it. By the time American interest in Pakistan had subsided, Pakistan had already made sufficient progress in its quest for achieving nuclear autonomy. Although this is history it still casts a heavy shadow on Pakistan’s nuclear programme as viewed through the western lens.
Several additional challenges that Pakistan faces are related to its nuclear capability.

The spread of terrorist groups in the Afghan-Pakistan theatre have allowed the US and western think tanks to raise the spectre of nuclear material or weapons falling in their hands. With Da’ish making inroads in Afghanistan and TTP and some other Pakistani groups associating with them various scenarios related to attack on nuclear installations or seizure of sensitive material are projected. Pakistan is aware of these contingencies and has taken all possible measures to safeguard its nuclear assets. The US has repeatedly acknowledged Pakistan’s safety and security measures as being satisfactory and in conformity with international standards. It has even assisted in improving these by providing financial and technical assistance. What then are its apprehensions and are these to be taken seriously or brushed aside as outright bias?

For there is a strong conviction among some quarters that the West is still not reconciled to Pakistan’s nuclear capability. At the same time, we cannot ignore the reality that Da’ish and some other militant groups could aim at seizing nuclear material. But Pakistan is fully aware of these contingencies and has repeatedly assured the international community and the domestic audience that it has taken comprehensive measures to make its nuclear installations and material fully safe and secure.

Pakistan is justifiably opposed to the discriminatory attitude of Western nuclear powers towards it. India being a strategic ally of US has been given several exemptions under the 123 Agreement. India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and place its civil nuclear facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. In exchange, Washington agreed to extend full cooperation in the field of civil nuclear projects and technology. New Delhi was allowed to continue with its military nuclear programme without any checks or oversight.
Whereas when Pakistan seeks similar concessions it is denied on one pretext or the other. Lately, the development of tactical nuclear weapons has been a subject of intense criticism by US and western think tanks. As is well known, this capability was developed as an antidote to the Cold Start doctrine. Certainly, this has prevented India from taking an adventurous course. But there is always a lurking danger that the militant group acting on its own could strike in India, raising the possibility of it eventually leading to a nuclear exchange. Clearly, Pakistan has taken several measures to clamp the activities of non-state actors. But with the level of atrocities being committed by India in Kashmir and the anger and frustration that it generates across the border, it would not be surprising that such attacks may still occur. The constant firing on the Line of Control and India’s refusal to engage in dialogue and isolate Pakistan diplomatically have the potential of moving the minute hand of Doomsday clock a few seconds forward.

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