Magazine article New Internationalist

The Charm Fades

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Charm Fades

Article excerpt

It is 10 years since Pakistan's atomic tests. But there is none of the chest-thumping, trumpet-blowing nuclear triumphalism of a decade ago. As the country reels under almost daily bomb blasts and suicide attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, the mood is downbeat. Only a few fibreglass models of the Chaghi nuclear test site remain from yesteryears, and schoolchildren no longer wear free badges embellished with little mushroom clouds. Missile replicas, once prominent in public squares and major intersections, are almost gone.

Nevertheless, nuclear weapons are not on the way out in South Asia. India's enthusiasm for the bomb remains high and drives the subcontinent's nuclear race. In spite of remarkably good relations currently, the two adversaries are frantically producing more fissile materials and warheads, as well as extending, improving, and testing their intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

That's not how it was supposed to be. Pro-establishment analysts in India and Pakistan, in a surprising show of solidarity, had long pooh-poohed the notion of nuclear racing. South Asians were not, they said, like the dumb, compulsive Soviets and Americans who had produced an unimaginable 70,000 nukes at the peak. At a conference in Chicago in 1992, the hawkish Indian strategist, K Subramanyam, snapped at me that arms racing is a Cold War concept invented by the Western powers and totally alien to sub-continental thinking'.

Minimal deterrence was the mantra of those days. The late General K Sunderji, chief of India's army, loved nukes. But he also insisted that a few was plenty: India needed only a dozen or so Hiroshima-sized citybusters, and so did Pakistan! In a chance encounter in 1995, when I introduced myself to him as a Pakistani nuclear physicist, his eyes lit up. He hugged me warmly, insisting that a happy Pakistan must have nukes. I did not have the heart to tell him that I wanted all nukes to be done away with. One wonders if Sunderji might be sad knowing that tactical nuclear war-fighting, which he considered sinfully escalatory, is now part of current Indian and Pakistani military doctrine...

The story of Pakistani nuclear weapons goes back to the defeat of West Pakistan by India in 1971 when East Pakistan, aided by India, separated after a bloody civil war to become Bangladesh. A year later, the Prime Minister of a truncated Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, called a meeting of Pakistani nuclear scientists in the city of Multan to map out a nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan lacked a strong technological base, but its secret search of the world's industrialized countries for nuclear weapons technologies was successful. After 1979, as the front-line state in the fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets, Pakistan was to feel little pressure from the US. By 1986, with the help of centrifuge technology surreptitiously brought in from Belgium and Holland by Dr AQ Khan, Pakistan had its first atom bomb.

The US response was a series of flips and flops. As a reward for Pakistan's anti-Soviet efforts, US economic and military assistance continued flowing. It was only after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988 that Washington toughened its stance on Pakistan's nuclear programme.

Then came the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998. Initially reluctant to test, Pakistan was forced over the hill by belligerent statements from Indian leaders. Diffidence soon turned into aggressive triumphalism. Countering India's nukes became secondary. Pakistan would see its weapons as a talisman, able to ward ofFall dangers.

Breathtaking adventurism followed. Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf sent non-uniformed troops along with Islamist militant fighters across the Line of Control in Kashmir to seize strategic positions in the high mountains of the Kargil area. Pakistan's nuclear shield would make an Indian response impossible, he reasoned. The subsequent war of 1999 may be recorded by historians as the first actually caused by nuclear weapons. …

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