Next May marks the 25th anniversary of India exploding five and Pakistan responding with six nuclear weapons.
A month prior to the explosions, I was in Makkah. On April 7, the Haj reached its climax at Arafat, making the first page of the Arab News. Right beneath that article was the news that Pakistan had launched the Ghauri long-range missile. Dr A.Q. Khan’s picture appeared in the article, which noted that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had congratulated Dr Khan for developing the missile. It also credited him for giving Pakistan nuclear capability.
My mind flashed back to May 1974, when India exploded an atom bomb near the Pakistan border. As far back as 1965, Z.A. Bhutto, then foreign minister and later prime minister, had told a British newspaper, “If India makes an atom bomb, then even if we have to feed on grass and leaves… we shall produce an atom bomb.”
After the tit-for-tat explosions of May 1998, many thought there would be no more wars between Pakistan and India. These hopes were shattered when General Pervez Musharraf launched an attack on Kargil in 1999. Militarily, the operation failed. Worse, it led to widespread international condemnation.
Domestically, tensions escalated between Sharif and Musharraf as both engaged in a blame game. Matters came to a head when Musharraf seized power in October 1999. He failed to deliver on his promise of ‘Enlightened Moderation’. Matters went from bad to worse, and reached their climax in the Red Mosque. Musharraf declared a State of Emergency but was pushed out when the US stopped backing him.
Not only did the A-bomb derail Pakistan from the road to democracy, it added a new dimension to the arms race.
Those who thought that nuclear weapons would allow both countries to spend less on conventional weapons were wrong. As India acquired more sophisticated fighters, tanks, guns, submarines and surface combatants, so did Pakistan.
Their arms race has diverted funds from human and economic development. The bigger risk is the possibility of stumbling into a nuclear war. It’s very difficult to read the enemy’s intentions. On August 6, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima when there was no reason to do so.
If the conflict over Kashmir escalates into a full-scale war, and Pakistan becomes fearful that India will invade it, it may attack Indian forces with tactical weapons. But a panicked India might retaliate by hitting major Pakistani cities with nuclear missiles.
Indeed, rumours of a nuclear attack by one country could force the other to launch a preemptive attack. There’s also the chance that terrorists could seize control of nuclear weapons.
Regardless of who starts it, a nuclear war will kill and maim millions. The fallout on the world’s climate would be catastrophic, says Science Advances.
Such a war is not just a theoretical possibility. In the fall of 2001, months after the 9/11 attacks in the US, terrorists attacked the Indian parliament. India, fearing this was just a prelude to an attack from Pakistan, moved several hundred thousand troops to the border with Pakistan. Pakistan responded in kind. In a few months, a million troops were staring at each other “eye ball to eye ball” across the border.
In 2002-03, I attended two conferences at Stanford on ways to prevent a nuclear war from breaking out. Thankfully sanity prevailed.
Today, Pakistan and India possess 150 warheads each. The number has been growing in lockstep between the two countries from 1998 onwards. By 2025, each country may have 200-250 warheads, putting their nuclear arsenal in the same range as that of Britain and France.
There are no civilian checks and balances in Pakistan on military spending, neither is it transparent. Pakistan’s economy has been in dire shape for the past three decades. Today, the country is on the brink of defaulting. Both the fiscal and trade balances are in the red. The rupee has suffered a huge loss in value and international debt has risen by 50 percent just in the past four years. It’s also beset with global inflation.
Imran Khan issued a national security policy which stated that the trade-off between economic spending and military spending in Pakistan was archaic. That was wishful thinking. There is a real opportunity cost associated with military spending. Every dollar spent on defense is a dollar that can no longer be spent on economic development. As every economist knows, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
National security cannot be ensured by military spending alone. It also depends on economic, social, cultural and human development. These other elements constitute what the noted strategist, Michael Howard called the “soft dimensions” of strategy. I mention these in my book, which was cited by the Abbottabad Commission.
A comparison between the economic trajectories of Pakistan and Bangladesh will make that point clear. It’s worth recalling that until December 1971, Bangladesh was East Pakistan and it lagged behind West Pakistan. In an article published in PIDE Knowledge Brief, Mahmood Hasan Khan, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Simon Fraser University, Canada, wrote:
“In Pakistan, the army has ruled the country under one pretext or another for long spells … in the last 12 years, it has been the kingmaker and powerbroker. Nor is this all. Its active involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan and Kashmir has had serious consequences on life inside the country. Pakistan has almost five times more army personnel than Bangladesh and it also spends a much larger proportion of its GDP on the army. Equally importantly, the army in Pakistan plays a more active role in the economy through ownership of real estate and industries and by contractual services.”
Between 1991 and 2019, Bangladesh’s GDP grew annually at 5.3 percent versus Pakistan’s 4.0 percent. In 2019, Bangladesh’s ratio of gross savings to GDP was 36 percent versus Pakistan’s 21 percent. It also had a better ratio of gross capital formation: 32 percent versus 16 percent; its ratio of external debt to GDP was 18.2 percent versus 27.6 percent.
These structural disparities are reflected in the value of the currencies. Today, one US dollar converts to 94.8 taka and 213 rupees.
There are many reasons for the differences in the economic trajectories of the two countries but one stands out: Bangladesh is not engaged in an unending arms race with anyone. It has no need for nuclear weapons.
Bangladesh has left Pakistan behind. Isn’t it time for Pakistan to rethink its nuclear weapons programme? How else will it achieve its economic and social development goals?