By Dr. Nazir Hussain
May 28, 2014
Fifteen years ago, on May 28, 1998, Pakistan started to detonate a series of nuclear devices (six devices from May 28 to 30) to restore the balance of power in South Asia, offset by the Indian nuclear explosions of May 11 and 13, 1998. Thus, Pakistan became the eighth nuclear power of the world. Pakistan was a reluctant entrant to the nuclear club to safeguard its defences and security. Unlike the other nuclear weapon states that went for prestige, status and power, Pakistan’s decision was purely compelled by national security imperatives.
During the last 15 years, how Pakistan has behaved as a responsible nuclear weapon state and what challenges it faced or is facing in the nuclear filed. This article endeavours to explore these issues through Pakistan’s pursuit for nuclear power and its track record of adhering to regional/global norms of non-proliferation.
Pursuit of nuclear power
While the U.S. was exploring the wonders of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Pakistan, among other countries, benefitted from ‘Atoms for Peace Programme’ under which many young scientists were trained in the U.S. and civil technology was transferred to the aspiring states. Pakistan received a Nuclear Research Reactor (NRR) of 5-MW PARR-1, and later Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) of 137-MW KANUPP, under the Atoms for Peace and Colombo Plans, respectively. Hence, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was established in 1956 which later, under the auspices of imminent Pakistani scientists, facilitated in creating a cadre of trained personnel who then became part of the weapon programme.
Until 1971, Pakistan had not envisioned the pursuit of weapon capability. The part of the reason remained lack of political resolve from the then leadership mainly due to Pakistan’s defence alliance with the U.S. However, after the 1965 Pakistan-India war, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the then foreign minister, along with few scientists, tried to convince President Ayub Khan, but that move remained unsuccessful.
The Fall of Dhaka in 1971 was a wakeup call for Pakistan’s political leadership. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto gathered a team of scientists to feel the pulse in the famous Multan Meeting of 1972. Bhutto, himself an advocate of weapons programme, pledged to offer facilities and resources required to accomplish the task. He was well aware of the Indian advancement in the weapon programme. Therefore, the 1974 Indian nuclear tests turned out to be a watershed for Pakistan to unify its efforts in one direction. In response to Indira Ghandi’s assertion that Indian nuclear capabilities are for peaceful purposes and it has no intention to use it for military purposes, Bhutto stated, “If capabilities are there, intentions can change overnight.”
From 1971 till the ‘D-Day’ of 1998, all regimes; political and military; successfully faced the ‘testing times’ of history offered by sanctions and international pressures to halt its weapon procurement. Nonetheless, a national resolve ranging from state to society culminated in the decision to detonate as response in kind to the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests. It was ‘now or never’ situation; Pakistan’s scientific prowess was challenged and the nuclear deterrence was called off. Pakistan had no other option but to go nuclear. Under intense international pressures, Pakistani political and military leadership showed political will and vision to safeguard country’s defences and security.
Though Pakistan and India became de facto nuclear powers, the South Asian nuclearization severely undermined the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Although the 1974 so-called Peaceful Nuclear Explosion of India resulted in the creation of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), international response to thwart India’s quest for nuclear weapons remained subdued. Moreover, many of the proposals from Pakistan as part of continuous efforts to prevent the region from falling into the nuclear abyss met disappointment. All bilateral and regional proposals to strengthen the nonproliferation regime offered by Pakistan were rejected by India, including:
- South Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, in 1974.
- A joint Pakistan-India declaration renouncing the acquisition or manufacture of nuclear weapons, in 1978.
- Mutual inspections by Pakistan and India of each other’s nuclear facilities, in 1979.
- Simultaneous adherence to the NPT by Pakistan and India, in 1979.
- A bilateral or regional nuclear test-ban treaty, in 1987.
- A South Asia Zero-Missile Zone, in 1994.
- A Strategic Restraint Regime, in 1998.
South Asia’s strategic landscape in the post-1998 era replaced wars with crises. With the exception of Kargil (1999) which marked a low intensity conflict, South Asia witnessed frequent episodes of crises; Brasstacks (1986-87), Nuclear Alert (1990), Military Standoff (2002-2003), and Mumbai (2008). Undoubtedly, the crisis connotations have changed in the post-1998 South Asia as any onset of crisis is haunting the deterrence stability of the region.
After the 1998 nuclear tests, Pakistan operationalized its deterrent capabilities, while at the same time, placed considerable focus on developing necessary infrastructure required for the optimal functioning of command and control. Based on multi-layered defence, non-weaponized deterrence and dispersal storage sites, the Pakistan Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) assures a mechanism to be fully efficient against accidental or unauthorized use. The foolproof command and control system under NCA has been given compliments by the Director General of IAEA and the U.S. Secretary of State.
Despite exercising restraint and adhering to the core values of a responsible nuclear weapon state, Pakistan is facing acute challenges to improve its image after the proliferation episode of 2003. Pakistan revised its Export Controls Act to minimize the prospects of illicit trade of sensitive and dual-use items. Pakistan has taken all possible measures to stand by the international community and supported efforts destined to improve the non-proliferation regime. However, Pakistan’s efforts remained futile against the criteria-based approach. The discriminatory treatment against Pakistan in the light of Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, the waivers to the U.S. Proliferation Act and the NSG waivers are designed to accept India as a de jure nuclear weapon state. Pakistan feels that its responsible actions are not given legitimacy and hence it feels betrayed by the international non-proliferation regime.
After fifteen years, when Pakistan and India started their nuclear journey together, Pakistan’s odyssey is replete with resolve, resilience and sheer passion to fight back against odds. Thus, May 28 is a symbol of nation’s pride and faith in its human capital that led Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Pakistan became a nuclear weapon state to safeguard its defence and security and to restore the balance of power in South Asia; thanks to this deterrence capability, war today is an exception and peace a choice.
Pakistan had a bumpy ride facing several challenges coming not only from within but also suffering exploitation at the hands of external players, unlike India which sailed smoothly. Given the constraints of geographical proximity and nascent early warning systems, both states cannot afford to indulge in any misadventure. Therefore, both states need to devise a comprehensive framework of confidence-building measures to increase transparency to maintain a genuine credible deterrence in the region.