AS Pakistan plods on with its war in Malakand against the Taliban and struggles to cope with the hundreds of thousands who are being displaced, controversy over its nuclear arsenal would be the last thing it would ask for.
But paradoxically, the war and Pakistan's nuclear arms appear to be closely interlocked. A major concern that has been widely expressed concerns the security of our nuclear weapons and the danger of their falling into terrorist hands.
As if this were not enough, we are now confronted by a report co-authored by David Albright, a former UN arms inspector, and published by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security saying that satellite images indicate that Pakistan has expanded its nuclear site near Dera Ghazi Khan and has “the fastest-growing nuclear weapons programme in the world”. Mr Albright attributes this expansion “to Pakistani decisions to upgrade its nuclear arsenal, currently estimated to contain roughly between 60 and 100 nuclear weapons”.
Significantly a Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman appears to have tacitly confirmed this report. “It is being done to maintain credible nuclear deterrence in view of the changing security environment in the region,” he explained.
This raises many questions especially in the minds of those who believe that nuclear arsenals do not buy peace for a country. When Pakistan took the road to nuclearisation in May 1998, the official explanation offered was that nuclear weapons were needed as deterrence. Since Islamabad cannot match New Delhi's conventional weapons capacity, acquiring even a small nuclear stockpile would prevent a war.
Even if this logic were to be accepted, one can well ask how many nuclear bombs act as deterrence. Aren't 60 bombs sufficient for that purpose? Does the conventional arms race have to be substituted by a nuclear race?
This was not defined as our goal in 1998. A programme of expansion also goes against the current international trend (North Korea has always been a maverick). Since his inauguration, President Obama has declared nuclear arms reduction to be on top of his agenda and when he met the Russian president the two agreed to cut their stockpiles below the level specified by their 2002 arms cut treaty.
The fact is that the nuclearisation of Pakistan's defence has not fetched the kind of security it was supposed to. In the fateful fortnight following India's nuclear explosions in May 1998 when Mr Nawaz Sharif's government was debating the pros and cons of detonating a nuclear device, the hawks in our establishment were calling the shots. They were so focused on India's bomb, our adversarial relationship with New Delhi and the 'compulsion' to match India's nuclear capability with a similar one of our own, that no thought was given to the negative repercussions of possessing an A-bomb.
Now that we have had the 'bomb' for 11 years what is the balance sheet? We are told that a nuclear-armed power is safe from an attack by foreign powers because of the danger of the nuclear conflagration it poses. Mr Shamshad Ahmed, foreign secretary in 1998, who has been a staunch supporter of the bomb, observed recently, “If we were not a nuclear power, our fate would have been worse than that of Afghanistan's.”
If hypothetical claims have to be made, we should ask if we had not gone in pursuit of the 'bomb' could we not have focused on our human capital and pre-empted the conditions that are now conceded to have led to the birth of the Taliban? Could we not have paid more attention to our foreign policy which is tied inversely to a country's defence policy?
In any case it is too late to undo what has already been done. But we must take care of the present and the future. Is it sensible to enter into a nuclear arms race with India at a time when the army is fighting a difficult war against insurgency which cannot be fought with nuclear weapons? Ten years ago writing in the prestigious American journal, Foreign Affairs, (July/Aug 1999), Mr Shamshad Ahmad, had correctly observed, “A nuclear conflict can have no victor.”
Then why are we now striving for an overkill nuclear capacity? If the aim is to deter India, are we thinking in terms of a war on two fronts? That would be sheer madness. At the moment we should seriously be striving to revive the peace dialogue with New Delhi for which the time is most appropriate now that Mr Manmohan Singh is firmly in the saddle and is inclined to extend the olive branch.
There is also the need to reduce our excessive dependence on the United States which forces us into a position of subservience allowing us little room for manouevre. If a nuclear arms race is to be the new phenomenon in South Asia, we can never hope to detach ourselves economically from the West because our defence expenditure will keep burgeoning. At the moment it would be more advisable to channel the resources that we can mobilise towards the war the army is fighting in the north and for the relief and rehabilitation of the IDPs, rather than towards upgrading nuclear weapons.
It must be remembered that if our dependence on the US keeps growing and we cannot even mobilise our resources for the social sector, Pakistan will be reduced to being a banana republic.
We are already paying the wages of our sins of omission (in educating our children and providing the people healthcare, housing and employment) and commission (of building up huge arsenals to fight enemies we created by our foreign policy failures).
The tragedy is that we still do not realise where we went wrong. The
days of wars fought on battle fronts are long over. Now wars are fought for the hearts and minds of populations in territories inhabited by our own people. In this scenario to hold the nuclear bomb as a symbol of our national pride is misplaced. Isn't it an anomaly that we cannot manufacture a paper pin but take pride in declaring ourselves the seventh nuclear power in the world?
A sobering postscript in 1998 Pakistan had approximately 55 million illiterates (above 10 years of age). By a conservative count, today there are 57 million.