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Question of priorities: N-arms vs development

May 30, 2013

A NUCLEAR power but with little electric power: incoming prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s apt observation on Tuesday is worth dwelling on. Guns versus butter — the apparent trade-off between arms and development — can be and often is grossly oversimplified. Pakistan exists in a tough neighbourhood, the need for a strong military, particularly to deal with the internal security threat, is very real and to wish away defence expenditures altogether is unrealistic. But it is also a question of gradation, of degree, and Mr Sharif’s words can be interpreted as a need to recalibrate the state’s priorities.

In theory, once Mr Sharif assumes office early next month he will preside over the National Command Authority, the apex body that guides Pakistan’s nuclear strategy. In reality, of course, the army controls nuclear policy entirely. But as prime minister, Mr Sharif has also made clear his intentions to seek a broader and faster normalisation of ties with India that has been attempted by other governments and regimes — and given that Pakistan’s nuclear programme is entirely predicated on the threat from India, it puts the incoming prime minister in a unique position to directly and indirectly address the tilt towards guns instead of butter in the region. Aside from occasional alarm in international circles, there has been very little focus in India or Pakistan outside the strategic community on the complex calculus of nuclear deterrence between South Asia’s two nuclear powers. Pakistan’s seeming push towards acquiring tactical nuclear weapons has been decried as unwise because it threatens to lower the nuclear threshold — tactical nuclear weapons essentially being battlefield weapons that must logically be placed in the hands of commanders several rungs down the chain of command. But Pakistani nuclear strategists have long argued that the provocation is really on the Indian side — because of India’s growing conventional warfare capacities, its push towards acquiring a missile defence system and flirtation with warfare ideas like Cold Start.

Who is right and who is wrong is a matter of great consequence but of even greater consequence is the notion that Mr Sharif alluded to on Tuesday: arms alone do not bring security. Creating some elbowroom for civilians at the nuclear policy table may be the hardest of tasks for Mr Sharif but in his India policy could lie the seeds of regional de-escalation in the medium and long term. It will require both boldness and the most delicate of touches but this at least is a fight worth fighting.