February 21, 2020
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Nuclear Simmer

As bilateral rhetoric reaches fever-pitch, the sanctions vs security dilemma torments Pakistan

Nuclear Simmer

The heat is on. The summer of 1998 is bound to be long remembered as a time when both India and Pakistan lost a war without a single bullet being fired from across the borders. Hopes for a climate of trust and mutual confidence have been blasted in both the countries. And even as the Pakistani leadership continued to be caught in a spin between the security scare, the debility of its economy and charting a new course in its foreign policy, the Indian home minister upped the ante further by warning Islamabad to stay away from Kashmir. Pakistan foreign minister Gohar Ayub Khan countered with his "when, not if" pronouncements on his government’s nuclear option.

Soon after Delhi opted for the nuclear path, seen in Pakistan as nothing short of recklessness, it became clear that Islamabad had not done its homework and was not ready for this new reality forced on the ‘land of the pure’ by the nuclear dust of Pokhran. Nawaz Sharif is not known to be a leader to take quick decisions. As the entire nation waited with bated breath, a cool and calm prime minister said, "We have the capability. We did not test the bomb for the last 15 or 20 years. We are in no haste to test the bomb immediately. We are reviewing the situation in detail in the perspective of our national security concerns which is most important to us."

But patience was in short supply and the leadership qualities of the Muslim Leage were being questioned. "The PM should immediately tender his resignation for keeping this decision pending. When we were in power, our security was strong and we used to keep an eye on India. There has been a major security lapse," charged opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on her return from abroad. New Delhi had finally given her a break from being hounded by the state and she saw the potential of mobilising popular support. Unperturbed, Sharif went for the traditional weekend to Lahore and a cartoon summed it up best. He is seated on the floor with his father and asking, "Abbajee, hun ki karan (father, what shall I do now)?" This is one time that even Abbajee didn’t have the answers.

If Pakistan finally decides to go overtly nuclear, the stakes would certainly be high, economically. Only time would tell if the nation is "ready to eat grass". For this once, the government will not have to convince the military about the stark realities on the economic front. Just before India carried out its nuclear tests, chief of army staff General Jeghangir Karamat himself had warned of the internal dangers to the country from a grim economic situation, rather than threats from outside. Today he is forced to prepare for both. Indeed, for some time now, the military has been thinking about trimming the armed forces, about cutting the ‘tail’ and increasing the ‘bite’. In this changed scenario, no one would grudge the forces if they ask for a greater slice of the annual budget. This is precisely what a Japanese envoy who met Karamat was told.

Many see the impending sanctions if Pakistan goes for the nuclear test as a godsend to teach the people to give up their luxurious ways and opt for a simpler life. This holds true for the present leadership too which lives in total grandeur; for example Sharif’s secretariat and the fleets of Mercedes produced at the snap of a finger. "We can live with sanctions, as national security is supreme to economic or other needs. We have already faced such sanctions, and the country can manage again with full support and cooperation of the nation," says finance minister, Sartaj Aziz. The minister, who was in the process of framing the Muslim League's second budget to be presented next month, is now engaged in a massive exercise to calculate the inevitable economic impact of international sanctions on Pakistan if it conducts a nuclear test. For starters, Islamabad will be looking at about $5 billion in foreign aid, much of which would be affected by sanctions. "The half-hearted response of the international community in slapping sanctions against India suggests any sanctions imposed on Pakistan in the event of it conducting a nuclear test may be equally, half-hearted and may not have that much of an impact," says Kaleem Omar, editor (investigations) of The News. He also suggests the option of nationalizing or, at the very least, putting a freeze on all American commercial assets in Pakistan.

But in cases of sanctions, it will not only be Pakistan that will suffer. Indeed, large business houses will be hit and the search for new markets, will not be that easy. Especially hit would be plans by American multinationals for the Central Asian States, as Pakistan is considered the most viable route to and from these former Soviet states. The huge oil and gas pipelines that were to be built from the Central Asian states through Afghanistan into Pakistan are likely to be worst hit. Perhaps in the end it was the Karachi bourse which said it all, as it came crashing to an all-time low. The Karachi Stock Exchange saw panic selling gripping the market and the investors offloading the shares in a hurry.

Already diplomats in Islamabad are talking privately of whether Pakistan would be forced to default on its debts. After all, if economic sanctions are imposed all hopes of repaying loans would evaporate, given Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves of less than $2 billion. Others like Dr Zubair Khan (cousin of former president Farooq Leghari) talk about the other option: that by not conducting a nuclear test or signing the CTBT, Pakistan could ask for its entire external debt of $36 billion to be written off and demand large inflows of economic aid and technology.

Officially nothing has been said of the offers in real terms that Bill Clinton has made to Sharif through his emissaries. But Sharif, reading the popular mood, told reporters in the presence of US assistant secretary of state Strobe Talbott: "We are not wishing for any sort of foreign aid at the cost of our national interest. Our decision will not be based on financial constraints because of sanctions."

 Administration officials in Washington say what Islamabad is seeking is a firm US security guarantee—akin to the one Japan was given after World War II—that it would come to Pakistan’s aid in the event of a confrontation with India. But this seems unlikely.

EARLIER in the week, US national security advisor Samuel "Sandy" Berger hinted that there was a solution in the works to compensate Pakistan for the F-16 fighters paid for by Islamabad in the late ’80s, but never delivered because of sanctions imposed under the Pressler Amendment. But Pakistan is not likely to be bought off by promises of lifting the Pressler legislation. In an interview to CNN, its information minister Mushahid Hussain dismissed the F-16s as "some goodies, here and there" and implied they were not enough to deter Pakistan from conducting a nuclear test. He added that his government sought more than a modest quid pro quo from Washington.

As the drama unfolds, it has become obvious that Pakistan has indeed been holding out for much more than the F-16s. Zamir Akram, political counsellor at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, told the Post: "We would like to see what kind of work they (the US) are prepared to do to address our security concerns. But if this means what we have been hearing on (Capitol) Hill—that they want to release our F-16 equipment for our F-16 planes—and if they think that is how they want to buy Pakistan, well, I’m sorry, but they are trying to bribe us with something that belongs to us in the first place."

According to Administration officials, while in Islamabad, Talbott warned that the same punitive measures applied to India would also be applied to Pakistan if it went ahead with the test. The US team also warned Pakistan that its battered economy would slump into deep crisis if sanctions were imposed and that matching India’s tests would worsen,not improve, its security. The US team was apparently told that Islamabad felt "betrayed" by the US failure to stop India’s tests and that it thought sanctions should be "as tough as those on Iraq". US officials, however, maintained that Talbott did not offer American security guarantees to Pakistan and would not do so in future. But Pakistan has been assured that US sanctions against India would not be lifted in a hurry.

Last week secretary of state Madeleine Albright also called her Chinese counterpart in an effort to persuade Beijing to urge Pakistan not to test. Around the same time, Pakistan foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed rushed to Beijing for urgent consultations. This week, US officials admitted that they would not look very favoura-bly on China providing security guarantees to Pakistan because such an arrangement could create "artificial divisions in South Asia" and might encourage India to look to Russia for its own guarantees.

Prof Stephen Cohen, who heads a programme in arms control,disarmament and international security, at the University of Illinois, says Pakistan was "in the market to see what it could get". "The Pakistanis are negotiating for a huge package the way the North Koreans did," he notes, adding that he does not believe that Pakistan would get security commitments from either China or the US. "The Pakistanis have always wanted NATO-like security guarantees." But Washington has been reluctant to do this, says Cohen, because "it is feared that Pakistan would drag the US into a war. Nor does Washington want to align itself against India."

Meanwhile, as a diplomatic offensive is launched by the Pakistan foreign office, the "now here, now gone" foreign minister, Gohar Ayub Khan, has got a new lease of life. People have been too busy to notice that he has once again been contradicting the PM. However this time, he is saying what the people were dying to hear. "It is now a question of when, not if. The government has taken the decision to go ahead with the nuclear test but not when," he said. In response, Sharif has asked ministers and other leaders to zip up and not to give statements until they were first cleared. The first casualty was Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who went underground to avoid a media hunt by foreign correspondents and TV crews.

Planes have been landing and taking off from Islamabad airport at ever-shortening intervals. Sharif’s been flooded with telephone calls from western leaders "wooing" him by suggesting the only "proposal" at hand, economic sanctions.This led to one comment: "These phone calls should be made to the Indian prime minister who has taken both countries to a point of no return. What do they want from us?" Not content with a high-level visit by Strobe Talbott, the Americans were planning to send in a team of Senators for talks. A worried Albright meanwhile said: "The administration will work hard with Congress, whose view of South Asia is already changing, to respond to Pakistan’s economic and security concerns." But no one is ready to trust Uncle Sam again.

"Sovereign states with acute and aggravated security concerns like Pakistan cannot possibly bargain on national security—something that Washington ought to be able to understand. In this regard, it is disconcerting to see assorted Pakistani politicians coming up with wish lists to bargain with the Americans. This betrays a mindset that fails to understand that the issues raised by the threats and challenges to Pakistan’s security cannot be traded at any market place. This is not a local bodies election affair where deals and bargains are struck," cautioned the English daily, The News.

In fact, the Indian home minister’s threats on Kashmir have caused more alarm than the N-tests themselves. Islamabad has learnt a bitter lesson that the BJP is not going to bluff any more. Alarm bells started to ring in the corridors of power as the civil and military leadership focused on the heavy shelling at the Line of Control. Already there is talk that in a situation like this Karamat might receive an extension. His time is up in January 1999. For the time being anyway, after Egypt opined that lacunae in the NPT and CTBT should be addressed instead of gunning for India, support for Pakistan from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain has been especially welcomed in Islamabad. "Although these diplomatic phrases hide more than they reveal, they indicate that the Muslim nations are finally supporting Pakistan," a senior leader of the ruling Muslim League said. But that has not made Islamabad’s "to test or not to test" dilemma any easier.
with Ludwina A. Joseph in Washington

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