by Hajira Asaf Khan
It was a hot and sunny Thursday, on the 28th of May, 1998—seventeen years ago—in the arid region of Chaghi, Pakistan. The only proof of a presumably intelligent life-form in the vicinity was a group of nuclear scientists, and some of the country’s top brass. They had all gathered at Chaghi to witness the event that was to usher in a new era in state security and become the source of immeasurable pride for Pakistanis. When the news of the successful nuclear tests reached television screens country-wide, the hearts and minds of common Pakistanis were filled with euphoric joy and they held their heads high with pride on this great achievement. As Chaghi’s mountain began to change its color and form—resulting from the underground detonation of a nuclear bomb—it was evident then that Pakistan had joined the ranks of a select group of nations which possessed nuclear weapons: it now held nuclear power. What was even more satisfying was the feeling that after the traumatic events of 1971, Pakistan had finally responded to the emerging existential threats from India effectively. However, seventeen years have passed since, and so it is appropriate to look into how that identity has evolved over time.
There has been opposition and criticism of this move from the international community right from the start, but had Pakistan not tested its nuclear devices then, it might have been nearly impossible to do so later on. India testing its nuclear weapons on May 11 had sounded alarm bells in the international community and challenged the exclusivity of the P-5 club. In many ways, Pakistan’s nuclear tests established its position as a state that does not take lightly to being threatened and dismembered. Moreover, the monumental conventional force disparity with India—which would have taken decades to bridge—was made irrelevant by the entry of nuclear weapons into the equation. That, in many ways, dispelled the immediacy of an existential threat emanating from India but in the longer run, has caused for incessant modernizations and expansions of Pakistan’s strategic assets to remain at par with, if not ahead of its nuclear adversary. That being said, however, it would not be overreaching to state that Pakistan may never have “gone nuclear”, were it not for the security compulsions set in place by the Indian nuclear tests, Pokhran-II. Pakistan may never have gone for over declaration of nuclear capability all by itself, but conversely the cost of abstaining in the event of Indian test would have been a different story altogether and would have placed Pakistan in a permanently disadvantageous position vis-à-vis India. In Islamabad’s view, it not only demanded a response in kind, but a prompt one at that.
The events of May 1998 have long since passed and the initial assumption was that Pakistan and India, under the deterrence established by nuclear weapons, would refrain from armed-conflict in the future. However, that has clearly not been the case. Both countries have since invested themselves in exploiting the gaps in the existing deterrence structure. Where India developed plans to pursue war-fighting at sub-strategic levels by engaging Pakistan in Low Intensity Conflicts, Pakistan responded with integration of short-range nuclear weapons into its arsenal, to deny India the freedom to operationalize its plans resulting in an arms race of sorts. Jumping the guns—so to speak—in this situation would not be advisable for either state and therefore, calls for stabilization of regional deterrence.
It is pertinent to mention here that the politics of global actors is adding to instability in the region—whether intentionally or otherwise, is debatable. The Indo-US nuclear deal, expected to pave the way for India’s entry into the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) is an apt example of such a policy by extra-regional actors, adding to complications. Pakistan has been advocating criteria-based entry into multi-national arms control regimes like the NSG instead of on a country specific basis. Any state that meets the agreed criteria should be offered membership, and not under any other influence, if the credibility of these organizations is to be maintained. On the FM(C)T, Pakistan’s position for discarding all existing fissile material stockpiles has been opposed by states that may have unaccounted-for stockpiles.
Pakistan has further proven its seriousness regarding nuclear safety and security and its efforts have been acknowledged by credible agencies like the NTI and IAEA. Notwithstanding the views of its detractors, Pakistan has truly evolved into a mature and responsible state taking its obligations seriously. Pakistan has indeed evolved as a nuclear weapon state in the last decade and a half and it is conducting itself in a manner expected of a country possessing nuclear weapons.