Political fallout from Pakistan’s nuclear tests

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 07, 1419 1998-07-01

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 9, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1419)

It was a foregone conclusion that there would be political as well as economic fallout from Pakistan’s nuclear explosions. Western governments had made clear that Islamabad would suffer terribly if it followed India down the nuclear path. Such pressure weighed heavily on Pakistani leaders before they took the plunge.

That prime minister Nawaz Sharif was going to benefit domestically from the the tests was well-known but the degree of support must have surprised even his most ardent admirers. The response of the Pakistanis living abroad has been equally solid.

It is, however, on the regional and international levels that impact of the tests has been greatest. Critics of the tests had argued that Pakistan’s precarious economic situation would not allow it to stand the weight of international sanctions. Having learnt nothing from Bosnia’s bitter experience, they wanted Pakistan to maintain the ‘high moral ground’ by unilateral nuclear abstinence. This would result in increased western aid while India would suffer from sanctions, they argued.

The flaw in this argument is clear. These bowl-in-hand experts cannot imagine life without western handouts. Freedom, however, demands a price. This is no less true of politics as it is of economics.

India was beginning to get more bellicose in its threats against Pakistan, especially in Kashmir. Had Pakistan not conducted the tests, it is almost certain that it would have had to use the bomb to ward off the Indian hordes who would have invaded across the Line of Control in Kashmir. By demonstrating its nuclear capability, Islamabad has postponed, if not completely eliminated, the possibility of war with India. It has also wiped out the psychological advantage Delhi had enjoyed since 1971 when its forces overran then-East Pakistan turning it into Bangladesh. India’s superiority in conventional weapons and forces has thus been neutralised. In the immediate aftermath of India’s tests, prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sent a letter to US president Bill Clinton (published in the New York Times on May 14), alleging that it faced a threat from China. This aroused Beijing’s ire; it had been trying to ease tensions along their common border, notwithstanding the irresponsible statements by Indian defence minister George Fernandes preceding the tests. Former Indian prime minister I K Gujral pointedly said that until he left office in March, there was no threat from China.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government had clearly miscalculated. Far from cowing Pakistan, it upset its northern neighbour and made the relations between Islamabad and Beijing even warmer.

Delhi has not gained the international advantage it was hoping for from the tests nor has Pakistan suffered as much as it was first feared. While Delhi backtracked on China after Beijing took strong exception to its remarks, Indian officials have used the China card for what it is worth. Jaswant Singh, advisor to Vajpayee on defence and foreign affairs, claimed last month that India was now the pre-eminent regional power. Speaking at a luncheon given by the Asia Society in New York on June 10, Singh asserted that India had filled the vacuum created by the demise of communism and the end of the cold war.

Such flight of fancy is a common characteristic of the Hindus who were similarly glowing in the immediate aftermath of their tests on May 11-13. Then, Lal Krishna Advani, India’s home minister, threatened to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’ if it did not mend its ways in Kashmir. After Islamabad’s tests, Advani has been a lot quieter. There is something grotesque about a country with 350 million starving people, and more sleeping in the streets, claiming greatness on the world stage.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has gained much respect in the Muslim world. There is grudging admiration for the manner in which the economically-strapped country has demonstrated its technological and scientific prowess. Whether this will translate into any tangible financial help from the Muslim world is still too early to tell. But one thing is certain: it will no longer be dismissed as a failed case.

Even in the west, Pakistan’s stock has gone up. The world is a cruel place; it only recognises the rights of the powerful. It is not enough to be right; one must also have the power to defend these rights. The Palestinians know this only too well, as do the Kashmiris.

For years, Pakistan begged the west to take up the cause of the Kashmiris. Few in Washington paid any attention. The Kashmir American Council (KAC), a Washington-based Kashmiri group, spent US$500,000 a year on lobbying. All it gained was the support of a few senators. While the US considers Kashmir to be disputed territory, its officials were simply not interested in discussing it, much less exerting pressure on India to resolve it. Now it is a different ball-game. US secretary of State Madeleine Albright and defence secretary William Cohen have admitted that Kashmir is the root cause of the India-Pakistan conflict. Unless this is resolved, it may lead to nuclear war on the subcontinent. Delhi’s attempt to brow-beat Pakistan has had the opposite effect.

The Kashmir issue has again been internationalised. But this is not enough. International pressure has not eased on Pakistan despite its tests. Now the focus has shifted to preventing it from nuclear weaponisation. Pakistan should make clear that its moves would depend largely on what effort is made to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Islamabad has no other quarrel with Delhi. This is the point that needs to be driven home. And it must also be made clear that should India dare invade Pakistan, whether along the Line of Control or on the international border, it will meet with a resolute response. India, like the rest of the world, only understands the language of force. This realpolitik is the basis of all contemporary international relations. Weakness only invites trouble.

Muslimedia: July 1-15, 1998

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