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Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Wobbling Nuclear Power in Pakistan

Bhutto had the inklings of the internal and external threats to Pakistan's existence in mind when on 20th January 1972 he summoned a meeting of Pakistani nuclear scientists at Quetta. He was a man in a hurry. After a day or two, the venue was shifted to Multan due to Quetta’s extremely cold weather.

The way Pakistan’s strategic decision-making is being done in Washington and London, one is amused when, in the same breath, its politicians, and civil and military bureaucrats are never tired of bragging that Pakistan is the world’s seventh nuclear power.

Is Pakistan a bogey nuclear state? If not, why all this wobbling and lack of self-confidence? Finally, why, in the first place, did we undergo the hassle of achieving nuclear capability?

Read more: Pakistan nuclear technology helped country earn $7.4 bn

Why did the Pakistani rulers need nuclear deterrence?

We can find an answer to this question within the concept of “Borrowed Power”. Theoretically, if a relatively strong country’s aggregate national power is ‘x’, and the weaker country’s aggregate national power is ‘y’, then their power differential will be ‘x-y’. This will be the quantum of the additional power required by the weaker country to offset the superiority of the stronger of the two. This borrowed power will come from a third country if that country is willing to lend it to the weaker country.

This implies that the power lender also needs to trade off its power with the weaker state to achieve its objectives. Borrowed Power will be available to the borrowing country partly in tangible form and partly as an underwriting by the lender. is a limit to the effectiveness of the borrowed power. It can help the client state in seeking parity of sorts with a stronger power through formal and informal alliances.

Bhutto had the inklings of the internal and external threats to Pakistan’s existence in mind when on 20th January 1972 he summoned a meeting of Pakistani nuclear scientists at Quetta. He was a man in a hurry. After a day or two, the venue was shifted to Multan due to Quetta’s extremely cold weather. During the meeting, Bhutto asked the scientists how much time they needed to build a bomb. When they gave a long time frame, he raised his three fingers, telling them that he needed the bomb within three years. Why did Bhutto need nuclear deterrence for Pakistan?

In the truncated Pakistan ruled by Bhutto, the quest for nuclear capability had replaced the need for borrowing power – it addressed Pakistan’s conventional asymmetry with India and underwrote Pakistan’s security. It also enhanced Bhutto’s confidence while dealing with the army and his political opponents. While providing deterrence against India, the bomb also promised to reduce the Army’s clout in Pakistan’s internal politics. We know how the power struggle between the generals and the politicians resulted in the creation of multiple centers of gravity in Pakistan.

The post-Ayub political struggle that resulted in the civil war in East Pakistan was essentially a power struggle between the three centers of gravity – the Awami League, the Army, and the People’s Party. Conventional asymmetry with India was, therefore, as much a driver for Pakistan’s nuclear program as Bhutto’s own sense of insecurity against the Army. Bhutto hoped that, with a nuclear deterrence achieved against India, he would have a strong case to reduce the Army.

Did Bhutto’s quest for nuclear weapons capability cost him his life?

We can only speculate. We do not have firsthand information to verify if Henry Kissinger did indeed threaten to make Bhutto a “horrible example”, as Bhutto alleged. Similarly, we cannot verify if Richard Armitage, some three decades later, threatened Pervez Musharraf to “bomb Pakistan into the stone age”, if it did not side with the USA after Nine Eleven. However, there is no denying that Bhutto had made intractable enemies by persecuting his political opponents.

Third-world leaders crave symbols of the geopolitical aristocracy, a nuclear bomb being one of them. In the past, Nehru considered India the successor to the British Raj and hence, right from the beginning, craved for such symbols – an aircraft carrier, a nascent nuclear program with a military dimension, and even a power bloc of his own known as the Nonaligned Movement. And India’s quest for joining the nuclear club did not have a China-centric origin, it started much before China became a nuclear power.

Read more: 100 million deaths and more: The cost of an India-Pakistan nuclear war

Zia was killed, along with many of his generals and the American ambassador when the C-130 carrying his entourage exploded in mid-air shortly after taking off from Bahawalpur airport, in southern Punjab. He had gone there to witness a demonstration of the American M-1 Abrams tank. Zia was killed because he had outlived his utility for some people, groups, or countries. Many conspiracy theories have been propounded about the plane crash. According to one such theory offered by Shahid Amin, an- ex-ambassador, Zia was killed by the Soviets. He could, as well, have been killed by the Americans (sic). Anyway, Zia played a very significant role in making Pakistan a nuclear power.

General elections were held soon thereafter and Benazir Bhutto became prime minister. She helped India in crushing the Sikh uprising by providing it with information about Sikh insurgents. However, Pakistan acquired the nuclear delivery system during her rule. It is generally assumed that Pakistan’s missile program is based on Chinese and North Korean technologies. If we recollect, American and Soviet missile programs (add to them the French missile and jet engine technology).

In response to the Indian tests, Pakistan carried out nuclear tests in May 1998. Was it a wise decision? Israel, having an arsenal of around two hundred nuclear warheads, is an undeclared nuclear power. It possesses the nuclear triad which allows it to deliver nuclear weapons from the ground, air, and sea. Through the sanitized intelligence reports leaked to the media, Israel has, from time to time, revealed that, in the event of an existential threat to the Jewish state, Israel would unleash a massive nuclear attack on multiple targets which would cover the entire Middle East, including Iran, and perhaps Pakistan.

Pakistan carried out nuclear tests under prime minister Nawaz Sharif, apparently as a response to India’s second round of nuclear tests. Why did India need these tests when it was already a de-facto nuclear power? We can speculate that the Indian leadership had one or more of the following motives for these tests:-

  1. Indians considered Pakistan’s nuclear program a bluff and wanted to call
  2. Nuclear explosions were a trap to make Pakistan show its hand, face international sanctions and, as a consequence, go bankrupt.
  3. Indian Prime Minister Vajpai, like his Pakistani counterpart, wanted the test to gain political mileage and reinforce his position at home.
  4. Vajpaiwanted to play it tough by carrying out nuclear explosions and prompting Pakistan to respond in kind. This would enhance Nawaz Sharif’s self-confidence and facilitate in bringing him to the conference table where he would be cajoled to put Jammu & Kashmir on the back burner and make the Line of Control a porous, de-facto border.
  5. India required more nuclear tests to re-confirm performance parameters and miniaturize nuclear warheads.

As the events were unrolled, Indians did come to know that Pakistan’s nuclear program was not a bluff. They also tricked Nawaz Sharif into carrying out nuclear explosions as a result of which international sanctions were slapped on it. India was also subjected to such sanctions, but its economy was resilient enough to face the music. We cannot say it with certainty about Vajpai, but Pakistan’s nuclear explosions did give Nawaz Sharif a new sense of identity and enhanced his self-confidence.

Read more: Comparative analysis of the nuclear doctrines of India and Pakistan

Unlike Zulfiqar Bhutto, Zia ul Haq, and Benazir Bhutto, who had contributed significantly towards the advancement of the nuclear program, Nawaz had done nothing. It can be said that he stumbled upon the bomb and made political mileage out of it. Like a sword wielded by a child, he wobbled while brandishing it before India and the rest of the world (more so, to awe- struck his own people). Pakistan is the only country where fiberglass monuments have been erected to celebrate the nuclear explosions, and where dummy missiles adorn the major road intersections.

Pakistan could have regularized its position as a nuclear weapons state by asking the International Atomic Energy Agency to send a team of nuclear scientists to Pakistan and showing them a few kilograms of enriched uranium, reprocessed plutonium, or depleted uranium which comes as a by-product during uranium enrichment. This would have conveyed to India, and to the rest of the world, that Pakistan possessed the capability to fabricate a nuclear device. Or, like Israel, information showing a knocked-down nuclear bomb could have been leaked to the press.

That nuclear deterrence did not prevent Pakistan from attacking the Kargil heights, nor did it deter India from counter-attacking these heights, is ample proof that a conventional war under a nuclear overhang cannot be won unless the attacker possesses sufficient conventional punch. Akin to the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, the India-Pakistan rivalry has shifted to a lower dimension where proxy operations against each other have replaced conventional warfare. In this scenario, nuclear deterrence acts as a stabilizer that prevents the events from getting escalated beyond a certain level.

In Pakistan, power is shared by the political government and the Army. The latter is also the Keeper of the Holy Grail – Pakistan’s nuclear assets. The guardianship of nuclear assets enhances the military’s clout in dealing with external players.


Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.