Pakistan’s hot nuclear greenhouse

The world’s fastest growing arsenal is being produced not just because of the fear of India but a strategic paranoia exacerbated by existential anxieties

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:07 pm IST

Published - November 05, 2012 01:10 am IST

121005 - Lead- Pakistan nuclear greenhouse

121005 - Lead- Pakistan nuclear greenhouse

Forty-seven years ago this month, Pakistan’s then Foreign Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, while on a visit to Vienna, had an unscheduled chat with a young, obscure nuclear scientist called Munir Ahmad Khan. “I briefed him about what I knew of India’s nuclear programme and the facilities that I had seen myself during a visit to Trombay in 1964,” Dr. Khan was to recall soon after Pakistan’s 1999 nuclear tests. India’s plans “added up to one thing: bomb-making capability.”

Less than three months earlier, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s military ruler, had led his forces into the war of 1965: an adventure that began with an ill-planned raid in Kashmir, and ended with Indian tanks massed on the outskirts of Lahore. Dr. Khan’s meeting with Bhutto led to another meeting the following month at the Field Marshal’s suite at the elegant Dorchester Hotel in London. “I must say Ayub Khan listened to me very patiently,” Dr. Khan recalled, “but at the end he said Pakistan was too poor to spend that much money.”

‘Civilisational’ difference

In 1972, his nation torn apart by the force of Indian arms, now Prime Minister Bhutto decided no cost was too high to pay. His concerns were focussed, though, on something far larger than India — his nation’s civilisational destiny. From the death row cell to which he was eventually despatched, Bhutto wrote: “the Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilisations have this capability. The Communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilisation is without it.”

The programme Dr. Khan seeded has grown into an extraordinary nuclear weapons greenhouse: Pakistan now has the fastest-growing arsenal in the world, with 90-110 warheads, up from 65-80 in 2008 and ahead of India’s 60-100. It has refused to sign the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, which seeks to cap global weapons stockpiles.

Even the capacity to obliterate India’s cities, evidently, hasn’t addressed the existential anxieties Pakistan felt back in 1962. The production of warheads in the nuclear greenhouse is suggestive of the existence of a strategic paranoia at the heart of the Pakistan military’s thinking — a pathology that will, if unaddressed, have huge consequences for India.

Pakistan’s nuclear pursuit is not entirely severed from reason. India’s smaller arsenal gives it the capacity to annihilate Pakistan; Pakistan needs more warheads to inflict proportionate damage. Islamabad fears, moreover, that New Delhi might render its warheads ineffective through pre-emptive strikes, or eventually develop anti-ballistic missile defences. The Pakistan army is deeply concerned about its growing asymmetry with India’s armed forces.

Brian Cloughey, a sympathetic historian of the Pakistan army, has suggested that if “India’s two armour-heavy mechanized infantry strike corps managed to penetrate to the line joining Gujranwala-Multan-Sukkur and to the outskirts of Hyderabad in the south, then it is likely Pakistan would have to accept defeat or employ nuclear weapons.”

Lieutenant Colonel Syed Akhtar Husain Shah, writing in a Pakistan army publication in 1994, was already noting that in future wars, the “probability of the application of nuclear devices at the strategic and tactical level will be high. These strikes may be pre-emptive or reactionary, at any stage of the battle.” Much of Islamabad’s recent nuclear pursuit has been focussed on providing it the nuclear teeth needed to fight just such a war — for example by seeking to arm the 60-km range Hatf9 missile with a nuclear warhead.

Experts aren’t convinced, however, that more tactical nuclear weapons are making Pakistan more secure. In a 2010 paper, A.H. Nayyar and Zia Mian argued that the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be of little use if “Indian armed forces had prepared for a nuclear attack and were able to rapidly disperse.” In addition, using tactical weapons even on Pakistan’s own soil could provoke retaliation — something India’s Cabinet made clear, in a 2003 statement, it would be prepared to do.

NATO, whose Cold War tactical nuclear programme appears to provide a template for the current Pakistani thinking, eventually pulled back because of not-dissimilar concerns. However, as analyst Shashank Joshi has noted in a thoughtful commentary, NATO’s rollback was facilitated by its technology-driven conventional warfare superiority over the Warsaw Pact. In the India-Pakistan case, though, the gap is increasing, meaning “its reliance on nuclear weapons will grow”.

This proposition tallies with what Pakistanis themselves have been saying. In December 2011, the Director of Arms Control at Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, Air Commodore Khalid Banuri, stated that the precise number of nuclear weapons Pakistan needed “could not be quantified.” And in a 2010 letter to The Daily Telegraph , Pakistani diplomat Wajid Shamsul Hassan linked his country’s programme to India’s “potential to produce 280 nuclear weapons annually.”

Since the early 1990s, it has been repeatedly shown that the threat of one nuclear bomb hitting one of its cities has proved adequate to deter India: in this sense, it matters little to New Delhi whether Islamabad has a hundred nuclear weapons or a thousand. India decided not to retaliate against Pakistani support for the Kashmir jihad, chose not to cross the Line of Control in 1999, and again held back its forces in 2001-2002.

Asymmetries of power

No other nation, moreover, has reacted to asymmetries of power with an open-ended nuclear pursuit. India is not seeking to grow its nuclear arsenal to outstrip China. Though China is modernising its nuclear delivery systems and technologies, it hasn’t sought to rival the arsenals of the United States or Russia.

So just what is keeping the nuclear greenhouse hot? Essays in the Green Books , collections authored by Pakistani army officers for internal debate, offer some insight into the question. Perhaps the first reference to a nuclear weapon appeared in the 1990 Green Book , when Brigadier Mushtaq Ali Khan argued India was “following a policy of destabilising every country in the region and then moving in as the saviour with its armed forces.” It had succeeded in doing so because “both the superpowers have been silently accepting such ventures.” Therefore, he went on, “an alternate deterrence measure has to be developed.” Put another way, while the immediate military threat might be from India, Pakistan’s larger concern was the world.

From the invasion of Iraq by the United States, anxieties about Islamabad’s relationship with Washington became more explicit. “Russians bending on their knees on the superpower chess board has made the USA the only actor to play its flip [sic throughout] by unfolding a new world order suiting the American interest and Zionists in particular,” wrote Brigadier Sayyed Ifzal Hussain in the 1991 Green Book . “Pakistan’s nuclear policy is a pinching needle for a master of new world order, particularly after dismantling a potential military titan, Iraq.”

Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Farooq Maan, writing in 1992, expanded on this theme, warning of “a full fledged air, land and sea attack by U.S. using the Indian Ocean and Indian territory as a base in collaboration with Indian forces and coalition forces such as were gathered against Iraq”. “It may,” he went on, “involve the U.S., Israel and India to undertake such an operation.”

In the post-9/11 era, these concerns solidified. The West, argued Brigadier Muhammad, believed “a nuclear [and Muslim] Pakistan has to be kept in control, lest it leads the Islamic world towards the formation of a new and powerful economic and military bloc in competition with or antagonistic to the western alliance.” Brigadier Khalid Mahmud Akhtar, also writing in the 2002 Green Book , saw an “American strategy of economic warfare to force Pakistan to abandon her nuclear programme.” Bhutto, clearly, still speaks from his grave: the nuclear greenhouse produces weapons to protect Pakistan from a world hostile to its ideological raison d’etre .

The nuclear greenhouse will cool down only when Pakistan makes peace with its place in the world. Its strategic fears are unlikely to be stilled even by progress on Siachen or Kashmir: no soldier will be moved to give up his gun by shows of benevolence by adversaries he believes have malign aims.

Pakistan’s relationship with India and with the world will be shaped by the struggle now under way to shape the country’s relationship with itself — a contestation that has pitted democrats against an alliance of ultra-nationalists and Islamists with an intensity never seen before.

It is imperative that India continue to do what it can to secure progress in its relationship with Pakistan. It is just as important, though, to remain aware that détente, until this epic struggle is settled, will stand on a firmament more closely resembling quicksand than bedrock.

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