April 03, 2020
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Nuclear Frenzy: A Tale Of Two Nations

As the world watches aghast, the subcontinent drifts dangerously into a game of one-upmanship

Nuclear Frenzy: A Tale Of Two Nations
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IT was the worst kept secret in the world. All of last fortnight, the constant and cruel reminders from foreign minister Gohar Ayub Khan that Pakistan was ready for a nuclear test spun around the globe. Recurring with ever-higher frequency, it finally drowned out the alternative—the still-born no-tests-for-aid deal. Gohar's dark "not if but when" prediction was fulfilled last Thursday. Never before in history was a nuclear test so inevitable, almost "imposed" on a country as it was now. Pakistan, its leaders exulted, had picked up India's gauntlet.

"It is a great day for Pakistan. We have finally entered the club of elite nuclear states. Like August 14, which was a day of freedom, May 28 was a day of independence for the nation—a day when we defied the United States and kicked open the doors to freedom,"said a jubilant General (retd) Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief.

For over 20 years, Islamabad had kept its nuclear agenda wrapped in a cloak of uncertainty, though around the world the nuclear programmes of both Pakistan and India were open secrets. But at times even Pakistanis themselves would joke about whether they 'had' it or not; indeed, it was argued that this ambiguity itself was an effective deterrent. But that was before May 11, when New Delhi shocked the world out of its slumber with its nuclear tests. Obligatorily, Pakistan's Chagai Hills became the cynosure of all eyes and the question was bounced up around the globe: would Islamabad respond?

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found himself in the eye of the storm. He perforce had to vacillate between a pragmatic mode for the outside world, and be seen to be rising to the occasion on a volatile domestic front—a Benazir Bhutto back at her vocal best being not the least of factors. But his predicament went beyond the concerns of ordinary politics. For, in no other country had there been such a vociferous debate on which road to take.

"A nuclear India the world has covertly been prepared into accepting—and one wonders what Pakistani diplomats were doing all this while—but not if it means having to deal with a nuclear Pakistan in the bargain. For Pakistan the security threat has increased manifold, not only in terms of India's nuclear weapon status, but also in terms of the likelihood of conflict over Kashmir," said a defence analyst, on Sharif's initial hesitation on whether to take the plunge.

Finally, 17 days after Pokh-ran, the match was evenly set at 5-5. Two days later, Pakistan claimed advantage with two more tests. In India, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had responded to global criticism with a moratorium on tests, but Gohar said more tests may be needed as Pakistan begins inducting nukes into its armed forces. While the official Indian reaction was not immediately known, unofficially it was indicated that India may not change its mind on the moratorium. But it seems the last word on this is yet to be heard. Along the way, regional tension escalated; Gohar Ayub charged India (promptly denied) with planning to attack Pakistani N-installations. The world watched in horror as the subcontinent presented a brand-new flashpoint, a scenario the West had always feared.

US President Bill Clinton was the most dispirited man as his South Asia policy blew up in the smoke of Pokhran and Chagai. "I cannot believe we are about to start the 21st century by having the Indian subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century when we know it is not necessary to peace, to security, to prosperity, to national greatness or national fulfillment," he said while slapping sanctions after Pakistan's tests. In Pakistan this was seen as a sign that the only superpower had come to terms with the fact that Islamabad would take no further dictation, a rarity in contemporary history.

"They offered us too little, too late," said Chowdhury Nisar Ali, minister for petroleum and a close Sharif aide. Nisar had been a dissenting voice in the cabinet and was very vocal against carrying out nuclear tests. "In a last ditch effort on Thursday morning, President Clinton made the prime minister an offer of $5 billion, F-16 planes and a security umbrella, but this was not sufficient for us," he told Outlook.

As the nation deliberated on its new nuclear status—a curious, mixed bag of empowerment and impoverishment—there was disappointment that Sharif had paid no tributes to the man who had first settled Pakistan's nuclear dilemma. After several years, newspapers carried photographs of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had defied the Americans with that classic quote, "We will eat grass, but make the bomb." If there was one man basking in the glory of decades of hard and fruitful work, it was scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, against whose laboratories the Americans had only weeks before imposed sanctions—provoking cynical comments like "Pakistan, America's most sanctioned friend".

Some details of the first series of tests started trickling in the day after. Dr Qadeer disclosed that the five devices were "boosted fission devices using uranium 235. We have been manufacturing this at Kahuta for almost 18-19 years. The first enrichment was done on April 4, 1978. The plant was made operational in 1979 and by 1981 we were producing substantial quantities of uranium". Asked about the yields of the tests, he said "one was a big bomb with a yield of about 30-35 kilotons, twice as big as the one dropped on Hiroshima. The other four were tactical weapons of low yield". Asked how long a thermonuclear test would take, Qadeer replied: "Much quicker than one expects. When the Indians tried to call our bluff, we proved otherwise. When the Indian prime minister gave a go-ahead, their scientists took more than a month. Our scientists took merely 15-16 days". He said Pakistan had attained the capability to explode a nuclear device by the end of 1984.

ALL this was met with some scepticism by both Indian and American scientists, who doubted whether Pakistan had even conducted five tests in the first place. They expressed surprise over the claims of the size and the number of devices and estimated that the total yield of the tests was between five to ten kilotons.

 One aspect where Pakistan can claim superiority over India is in having a well-defined Nuclear Command Authority, comprising the president, the prime minister and the army chief. This has existed since the time of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and after his death the then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan took over the charge of the nuclear button, so to speak. But now, with a toothless president, it is the prime minister who would be in control of this button. India has still to sort out these issues—considered a sine qua non among nuclear powers globally.

Reacting to the Indian leadership's belligerent statements over Kashmir, Gohar Ayub indicated that Ghauri, Pakistan's recently tested intermediate range (1,500 km) missile, would be tipped with a nuclear warhead. Qadeer, on his part, added that tipped on small missiles, the low-yield weapons can be used in the battlefield against concentrations of troops. "None of these explosions were thermonuclear. We are doing research and can do a fusion blast, if asked. But it depends on the circumstances, the political situation and the decision of the government".

According to one report, five shafts of the tests were from 800 to 835 meters long, had a 7 ft diameter each and were drilled deep into Baluchistan's rocky mountain range. The device was mounted and erected only four days before the test and extensive monitoring instruments were employed. Reports said panic gripped the area in nearby Dalbandin when the people felt tremors of the tests and came out from their houses reciting verses from the Holy Quran. A report quoted Faqir Mohammad, a farmer who was busy harvesting, as saying, "an un-Islamic country carried out nuclear blasts which should have been responded to by Islamic Pakistan."

THE day after, the nation awoke to a rude shock when front-page reports in newspapers announced that all fundamental rights had been suspended. President Rafiq Tarrar had promulgated emergency in the country under Article 232 of the Constitution with immediate effect in view of a threat of external aggression. This denied the people any recourse to courts too. "We could understand it if there had been a financial emergency declared but there is no justification for Sharif to suspend our fundamental rights," said former PPP interior minister, Gen (retd) Nasirullah Babar.

If anything it quickly moved the blasts off the front-pages as people tried to comprehend the new reality—an emergency in a fragile democracy. Used to emergencies under martial law, this step by Sharif's civilian government baffled them as there was no mass agitation, no strong opposition to trouble the government. It was interpreted as a move to impose tough economic measures in the wake of global sanctions and quell any future dissent.

Asma Jehangir, who chairs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, reacted sharply. Castigating India first for "nuclear lunacy and then following that up with dire jingoism", she said it had to have its effect in Pakistan. "The government should resist the temptation of using the excuse or the tool of emergency for any kind of aggrandisement of itself or its party. Countries have been at war and yet kept all their citizens' constitutional rights fully safeguarded. Is this the way to elicit cooperation from the people or to reward them for the sacrifices demanded of them? People of this country have had their rights suspended for long spells, mostly under military rulers. Their experience of it is bitter". Added The News in an editorial entitled 'A Shocker': "This bodes ill for democracy and national unity and is a red rag to the bull of political instability. That is why the sooner fundamental rights are restored, the better.... The way to elicit 'sacrifices' from the public is not by forcing it through draconian measures but by building consent and relying on the innate patriotism of the Pakistani people."

Others realised in horror that all foreign exchange accounts had been frozen; people could no longer make drawals. The reason was simple. The $1.2 billion that the government had in forex reserves included those from the private account holders. As the dollar and Pakistani rupee ratio touched new heights, with the dollar unavailable even for Rs 55, the government declared Friday a bank holiday. "If we had not done this, there would have been a run on these foreign exchange accounts and that would have created problems for the government," finance minister Sartaj Aziz told Outlook. But two days after suspending the business of money changers, the government withdrew the order on Saturday.

But this is just the beginning. The government faces $1 billion in debt servicing which has to be coughed up by June. If Japan withdraws $300 million and the World Bank $250 million, then only $300 million will be left in the national exchequer by end-June. It takes only an educated guess to realise whether it would be the government or the people who would have to eat AFP grass first. Meanwhile, Sharif asked the Central Board of Revenue to prepare a package of tax reforms to generate Rs 500 billion during 1998-1999.

So where does the government go from here? Right after taking the nuclear plunge, it has opened another front for itself at home by declaring emergency, a sure recipe for creating dissent. A hitherto-weak opposition and a small but vocal band of human right activists have been handed readymade ammunition to attack the government. Islamabad's diplomatic skills will also be put to the test, now that it is a nuclear state.

Similar to the aftermath of the Indian tests, the West remained divided when it came to condemning or imposing sanctions on Pakistan. If New Delhi had Moscow to lean upon, it was Beijing which scuttled a resolution at the United Nations condemning Pakistan for the tests. Earlier, before the tests were conducted, the ambassadors of both China and the US were called in and informed about the decision to test. Reports also mentioned that Iran and Saudi Arabia too were "consulted" before the tests but there was no official confirmation of this.

IT'S too early to say how the West will now react to the two South Asian nuclear neighbours, apart from the sanctions that have been imposed. "It was easy to isolate India in the region. But now that Pakistan has also openly declared itself a nuclear power, how can you isolate two nuclear powers in the region? This is the test that the West is facing," says a Pakistani analyst.

Adds Dr Mehbubul Haq, a former finance minister who has been frequently advising Sharif: "The West would have no choice but to welcome India and Pakistan as members of the nuclear club. They should start negotiating the CTBT so that the two countries move towards making the world a safer place. Just like the agreements between the US and the USSR. They will have to deal with us on the basis of nuclear equality, not nuclear apartheid." He feels that Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will once again jump-start dialogue between India and Pakistan. "SAARC has also to be revived and I have already talked to the leadership in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh that we need someone strong like I.K. Gujral to take over as the political secretary of SAARC and push through the Gujral Doctrine in the organisation," Haq told Outlook.

At his press conference immediately after the first nuclear blasts, Sharif also held out a tentative olive branch to New Delhi and said a dialogue was the need of the hour, with Kashmir being the core issue. Now that 'natural belligerence' has found release on both sides, putting the dialogue back on the tracks is really the only option for the two states, especially in the eyes of an alarmed West. Besides, it is only at the negotiating table that the two new nuclear powers can come to any sort of understanding on de-escalating tension on the border.

Said former army chief, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg: "Now that we stand tall with pride and dignity, we have to look to the future by not engaging ourselves in a mad arms race, but rather by searching for peace which would provide better future and prosperity to the teeming millions in the South Asian subcontinent. We shall not fear to negotiate but we shall not negotiate out of fear".

In New Delhi too, voices of sanity were urging the Indian leadership to cool off its tough posturing and restart the dialogue with Pakistan. Indian officials, not completely surprised by the Pakistani tests, felt there was a silver lining. At least the world would have to impose sanctions on Pakistan and international pressure would not be directed exclusively on India. Finally, responding to the nuclear debate in Parliament on Friday, Vajpayee assured Pakistan that it faced no threat from India and that he was prepared for a comprehensive political dialogue with Islamabad. He reiterated his offer of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, saying that India was prepared for a discussion on confidence building measures to enhance security in South Asia. But as things stand presently, the bilateral dialogue is going to be kicked around for some time, with both sides expecting the other to make a substantive gesture. But simultaneously, the tough talk on Kashmir continues unabated on both sides. Gohar went further saying a nuclear war was possible.

 Earlier, the Indian establishment failed to see the contradiction in Vajpayee's retrospective justification of the Indian tests, which he came out with after Pakistan conducted its own tests. Reacting to the Pakistani tests, Vajpayee said "it had not come as a surprise and has vindicated our policy and stand. They have confirmed our doubts and we are ready to meet the challenge". This argument flew in the face of India's long-standing defence that its nuclear programme was in response to China's.

 Back in Islamabad, the week ended on a note of uncertainty not so much from the nuclear blasts themselves but from the direction Sharif has taken by declaring emergency. Tall claims about moving out of palatial buildings and putting them up for public use has fooled no one. This, coming from a man who put on hold the entire development work in the country and diverted funds to build a controversial motorway of dubious utility.

The Opposition is also pointing to the fact that several Muslim League members, including a brother of the prime minister, Abbas Sharif, are loan defaulters. Will Pakistan now see new trends being set? The last time a prime minister promised to put generals in Suzuki cars, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq quickly gave him a one-way ticket to Sindh. Though Sharif is no Mohammad Khan Junejo, the austerity that Sharif talks about has so far been more of an imposition on the people than a strict work ethic for the government itself.

Economically, things are only going to get tougher for the people. Reports surfaced that those inside the government circles who had prior knowledge of the impending 'freeze' on the foreign exchange accounts had emptied the banks. Though the Chagai tests may have taken only 17 days to conduct and taken the immediate pressure off Sharif, they were the result of over 20 years of hard and persistent work. But what about the new pressures that will build up if things worsen domestically? Will the new phase of Pakistan's nuclear policy also cost the head of a prime minister?

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