Nuclear Prestige

By Saad Hafiz

Pakistan, the world’s only Muslim nuclear power, celebrated Youm-e-Takbir (Day of God’s Greatness) this year with the usual fervor and chest- thumping bravado. The day marks the country’s nuclear tests in 1998, which were a tit-for-tat response to earlier Indian tests. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is set-up as a military deterrent against India. It is also regarded as the ultimate guarantor of the country’s survival.

The nuclear program has come to play an important role in sustaining purported national self-esteem. “Nuclear nationalism”, or so to say, and anti-Americanism can easily excite Pakistanis, as may well be imagined, and which tends to deflect attention from the ruling elite who have historically done little to solve pressing national problems. It also helps to paper over internal dissension in an increasingly fractious nation.

Amidst frequent power outages, a grim economic outlook and frequent terrorist attacks, various stage managed and scripted nuclear celebrations around the country on May 28 took on a jingoistic air. A national daily reported on a ceremony organized by the Nazria Pakistan Trust thus: “A boisterous crowd applauded incoming Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, who had authorized the tests during his last tenure as prime minister. It was heartening to see the jubilation of people celebrating Youm-e-Takbir during the worst ever energy crisis in the country. Though most of them might have had an almost sleepless night due to unavailability of electricity, their enthusiasm to celebrate (their) country’s nuclear capability (was commendable). Mr Sharif lamented in his speech that a nuclear Pakistan was without electricity. (Alt)hough he vowed to end the energy crisis,  (he) asked the people to wait for that moment with patience since there was no money in the national kitty. Mr Sharif (…) consoled the audience by telling them that after assuming reins of power, he had plans to undertake an economic explosion.” It appears that a sleep-deprived and penny-less nation living on empty political promises can still be fired up with ideas which may in the end lead to a nuclear Armageddon!

Nuclear terrorism is seen as a critical threat around the world. In this context, the western press periodically labels Pakistan as being “an obvious place” for militants to seek nuclear weapons or materials because of a weak government and infiltration of its security forces by jihadist sympathizers. This fuels local conspiracy theories on external dangers to the nuclear program reflected in this newspaper comment: “May 28 of every year, makes us realize that our nuclear program is the most disliked and unwanted thing for our neighbors and the world around us, and from the so-called terrorist activities to the drone attacks, all atrocities are an effort to keep us away from further advancement in the field of nuclear research.”

Pakistan has greatly enhanced its capability to wage nuclear war since the initial tests. The country is well advanced in the full-scale manufacture and deployment of nuclear weapons, along with their delivery vehicles and command and control systems. Ideas of a credible ‘first and second strike’ scenarios, new battlefield and strategic nuclear weapons and the potential for a triadic nuclear program, with weapons in the air, sea and on land are bandied about in national security circles. Nuclear weapons serve as a force multiplier, able to make up for regional imbalances in conventional military power. The much-touted nuclear status imparts extraordinary prestige and power to fundamentally weak states such as Pakistan.

The catastrophic consequences of exercising the nuclear option are seldom discussed. Pakistanis seem to be leaving their nuclear fate in the hands of a ‘rational’ military  leadership which can barely be counted on not to make another Kargil-like gamble.

George Wald once said somewhere that, “there is nothing worth having that can be obtained by nuclear war — nothing material or ideological — no tradition that it can defend. It is utterly self-defeating.” The national prestige associated with having a nuclear weapons capability can do little to ensure Pakistan’s survival and prevent a East Pakistan-like breakup in the future. It did not work for the U.S.S.R., and it will not work for Pakistan either. Pakistan’s survival. In a large measure, depends on economic performance, political stability, a wise foreign policy, technological advancement, and in developing its civilian human resource potential.

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