Deterrence and diplomacy

Published March 27, 2023
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

THE strategic choices most consequential to Pakistan’s future lie within. They involve dealing with recurrent economic crises, providing effective governance, defeating terrorism, making education accessible to all its children and generating jobs to absorb the population’s youth bulge to avert a potential demographic disaster. The implications of these internal challenges for national security are apparent and can be ignored only at great peril to the country.

But external security challenges have been no less imposing since the country’s inception, confronting it with enduring dilemmas. The burden of history and tyranny of geography — a volatile neighbourhood and the headwinds of geopolitics unleashed by big power competition — have consistently put security from external threats at the top of Pakistan’s national agenda. Contested borders inherited from colonial rule compounded this dilemma.

Few books have been written by Pakistanis about how the country’s enduring external security predicament motivated its quest for a nuclear capability. Feroze Khan’s Eating Grass was the first to chronicle Pakistan’s nuclear history and the challenges it faced to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

The book’s concern with how Pakistan surmounted numerous obstacles to master the nuclear fuel cycle left a gap in the role of diplomacy and how its diplomats defended the country and promoted its interests in the nuclear domain.

A compelling new book now fills that gap. The Security Imperative: Pakistan’s Nuclear Deterrence and Diplomacy by Zamir Akram, deals with nuclear diplomacy with sharp insight and extraordinary breadth. Having dealt first-hand with nuclear issues and negotiations, Akram, an outstanding diplomat, is especially qualified to tell the definitive story of Pakistan’s quest for security by acquiring credible nuclear deterrence in which diplomacy played a crucial role.

Pakistan’s main challenges lie within but external security has also posed enduring dilemmas.

The main theme of his well-researched book is the security-driven nature of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence. In the opening chapter, Akram describes how the country’s security compulsions were the consequence of history and geography. The legacy of disputes and hostility with India shaped its security paradigm.

Pakistan initially relied on an external balancing strategy including military alliances to assure its security. But this failed to prevent India’s aggression in 1971. That together with the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion convinced Pakistan to seek a nuclear capability as a security guarantor. Geography worsened Pakistan’s security predicament given its location in an unstable neighbourhood with challenges emanating from Afghanistan.

A key theme in the book is the discriminatory treatment meted out to Pakistan by the US-led West and how Pakistan’s diplomacy navigated through this while protecting and advancing its nuclear and missile programmes. Akram recalls how after India’s 1974 nuclear explosion the US ended up punishing Pakistan for what India had done.

“Through a series of legislative measures such as the Glenn, Symington and Solarz amendments, the US effort was essentially to prevent Pakistan from pursuing its own nuclear weapons capabilities.” Pakistan’s civilian nuclear cooperation agreements were cancelled under American pressure, first with Canada and then the Reprocessing Plant agreement with France. Thereafter Pakistan had to pursue a covert nuclear weapons programme.

Pakistan used the period of its close relationship with the US following the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan to build its nuclear capability, capitalising on what Akram calls the “strategic space” provided by this development.

So long as it didn’t conduct a nuclear test, make a weapon core and share technology, US pressure was kept at bay, he writes. Waivers on American non-proliferation laws and adherence to the “tacit understanding” enabled Pakistan to receive assistance and also move forward to build its capabilities.

But no sooner had the Russians been forced to withdraw from Afghanistan when the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan in October 1990 under its Pressler law. Islamabad protested, pointing out that unilateral measures aimed only at Pakistan would not promote regional nonproliferation. It also pressed on with its nuclear plans, conducting “cold tests” and shifting from its uranium-based nuclear weapons capability to the plutonium route.

Akram outlines the diplomatic initiatives taken by Pakistan in the 1990s, offering a series of regional nonproliferation proposals to the US and India.

In the chapter ‘Roller Coaster’, he describes developments in which I was also intimately involved in our nuclear diplomacy as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington. Pakistan-US relations had then plunged into crisis which only eased after prime minister Benazir Bhutto came to power, undertook an official visit to Washington and was able to convince president Bill Clinton that Washington needed to reassess its policy because its punitive approach had not worked. Clinton was to later publicly acknowledge that it was unfair to keep both Pakistan’s money and the F-16s it had paid for.

It was then that Senator Hank Brown informed me — as mentioned in the book — that he intended to move an amendment to the Pressler legislation to lift the ban on economic assistance to Pakistan and release all embargoed military equipment including the F-16s. Between then and the success of the Brown Amendment, for which the Pakistan Embassy lobbied hard, the Clinton administration tried to secure a unilateral nuclear concession from Pakistan in return for supporting the amendment.

Pakistan refused, including the proposal to “cap” its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for release of the F-16s. I was present in meetings during the visit of army chief Gen Waheed Kakar to Washington when he flatly told the Americans that as “Pakistan’s national security was non-negotiable” they could keep the planes. In the end, the Brown Amendment was adopted, economic sanctions lifted and military equipment worth $368 million was released except the F-16s.

Akram details the talks between the US and Pakistan before and after Pakistan’s nuclear tests that followed India’s in 1998. Later chapters again pick up the theme of nuclear discrimination, discuss the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal and the implications for Pakistan of this “nuclear exceptionalism”.

Pakistan’s response and plan to achieve ‘full spectrum deterrence’, announced in 2011, is also appraised with clarity. Accounts of Pakistan’s bilateral and multilateral nuclear diplomacy contain many useful insights. Important as the nuclear capability has been to provide Pakistan with the means to deter external aggression, an important conclusion of the book is that nuclear deterrence cannot deal with internal challenges which Pakistan is facing. That in turn can weaken deterrence.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2023

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