By Pervez Hoodbhoy
28 May 2016
On this very day, exactly 18 years ago, riotous celebration erupted after Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons. Just 17 days earlier, India had experienced a similar moment. Then, one year later, Pakistan once again saw mass jubilation during the officially sponsored Youm-i-Takbir. But, in sharp contrast, today’s nuclear celebrations are barely audible. One hopes that this signals increased national maturity and sobriety.
From Pakistan’s perspective, its nuclear weapons have already delivered by reducing India’s willingness and ability to use its superior conventional military capability. Indian restraint during the 1999 Kargil war, the subsequent failure of Indian efforts at coercive diplomacy in 2001–02, and the caution exercised after the 2008 Mumbai attack attest to the central lesson of the nuclear age — it is not worth going to war against a nuclear-armed adversary on anything of less than national life-or-death importance.
That’s the success part. What of the rest? As readers will surely recall, there were many expectations that went well beyond matching India’s bombs. Lest they be forgotten, let’s recall what they were and review the report card.
First, the bomb was supposed to ensure Pakistan’s security. Post Chagai, it was common to claim that “none may now dare look at Pakistan with evil eye”. But this was shallow rhetoric. In 2016, Pakistan is threatened not so much by India as by a multitude of Islamist militant groups that are waging bloody war against our state and society. In the last decade, the Pakistan army has lost more soldiers to terrorism than in all four wars against India. Nuclear bombs are useless against terrorists.
The atomic bomb was supposed to create a state of bliss. Unsurprisingly that didn’t happen.
The bombs proved equally useless in stopping the drone that took out Mullah Mansour a few days ago, or the team of SEALs that hunted down Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Apart from issuing sullen remarks about the violation of its sovereignty, Pakistan could do nothing to challenge American power.
Second, ever since the first bomb was ready (1987), it was hoped that the bomb would resolve the Kashmir dispute in Pakistan’s favour. Protected by nuclear weapons, Pakistan could support militant groups to wage a low-cost war against Indian forces based in Kashmir, raising the cost of Indian occupation.
For fear of triggering nuclear confrontation, India would be deterred from launching cross-border retaliatory raids. The term ‘nuclear flashpoint’ for Kashmir reverberated in the international press. The hope here was that Western intermediaries would step in and force India to the bargaining table.
It didn’t work. After an initial period of worry, international interest in intervening in the Kashmir dispute waned. The UN no longer pays any attention to the matter. Today, the wisest option for Pakistan would be to stick to its officially declared policy of providing moral and diplomatic support — but no clandestine military support — to those Kashmiris who bravely resist Indian occupation. Else, how can it reasonably protest Indian support to Baloch separatists? Condemn Kulbhushan Jadhav and his associates?
Third, the euphoria created by the nuclear tests was expected to create a new national spirit. The euphoric press compared this historical moment with the birth of Pakistan in 1947. TV programmes of that time show Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulating cheering citizens. To bear the pain of Western sanctions, he promised strict personal and public austerity. Henceforth grand public buildings — including the prime minister’s house — would be converted into schools and women’s universities.
Long before Panama, this became unbelievable. The fact is that such euphoric moments are strictly temporary. Once the excitement of the blast fades, harsh realities inevitably set in. May 28 did not end Pakistan’s struggle to discover an identity and national purpose or help it overcome deep provincial, religious, ethnic, and linguistic divisions. Beyond hoping for Chinese largesse, it does not have a programme for economic growth to meet the needs of an exploding population.
Fourth, now a country that was both nuclear and Muslim, Pakistan hoped to emerge as a leader among Islamic countries, standing tall alongside the much older, more established, and much richer Muslim nations. It also sought to become their defender.
The notion of creating a common defence for the Ummah was vigorously promoted by numerous Islamist parties in Pakistan, most notably the Jamaat-i-Islami. Carrying cardboard replicas of the Shaheen and Ghauri missiles through the streets, they claimed the bomb was for Islam rather than just Pakistan. Much of the media was also enthusiastic about expanding the appeal of the bomb.
Indeed, Muslim nations as diverse as Iran and Saudi Arabia were delighted at Pakistan’s success. Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharazi flew over to congratulate Pakistan. Saudi Arabia went further; it provided Pakistan with 50,000 barrels per day of free oil to help it cope with the international sanctions triggered by nuclear tests.
But those moments have long passed. The notion of the Ummah has evaporated as Muslims fight Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey and Libya. Nothing suggests that this is temporary. Iran and Saudi Arabia are at daggers drawn, and the Pakistan-Iran relationship simmers with hostility. Today, Israel and Saudi Arabia are virtual allies with Pakistan drawing ever closer to the latter. The notion that Pakistan’s bomb could be directed against Israel has become unbelievable.
Fifth, and finally, the bomb was supposed to transform Pakistan into a technologically and scientifically advanced country. Amazingly, both India and Pakistan forgot something basic — making nuclear weapons many decades after they were first made is a highly unconvincing claim to technological prowess. Even poor North Korea, known for its cartoon-boy dictator — but not for new science — has conducted four nuclear tests and boasts of ICBM capability.
The atomic bomb was supposed to create a state of bliss. Unsurprisingly that didn’t happen. Indeed, Pakistan’s security problems cannot be solved by expanding its missile fleet, buying more F-16s, or developing tactical nuclear weapons. Instead, the way forward lies in building a sustainable and active democracy, an economy for peace rather than war, a federation in which provincial grievances can be effectively resolved, elimination of the feudal order and creating a tolerant society that respects the rule of law.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.