India should avoid another “Shimla Agreement”


N.S. Rajaram


Nuclear tests: reality and bluff

            On May 11, 1998, India tested three nuclear devices including a thermonuclear device and a low yield (less than one kiloton) device. Two days later India tested two more devices, both in the subkiloton range. With this string of highly successful tests, India not only demonstrated its nuclear capability, but also leapfrogged several established nuclear powers — China, Britian and France. The world order was changed forever.

            Seventeen days later, on May 28 to be precise, Pakistan also announced the successful detonation of five nuclear devices, thereby seemingly joining the nuclear club. But for reasons that I will soon make clear, the reality is quite different: Pakistan’s tests are more an exercise in public relations than a demostration of technological or military prowess.

            First let us look at the Indian tests. The thermonuclear device demonstrated India’s capability in producing strategic weapons. This may not be immediately relevant to Pakistan. But the subkiloton devices, going as low as 200 tons can be converted into tactical battlefield weapons and pose an immediate and insurmountable threat to Pakistan. This means that a bomb no larger than an artilery shell, but with the equivalent power of hundreds of tons of conventional explosives can be used against specific Pakistani targets. More importantly, the technology and the nuclear materials are entirely indigenous.

            What about the Pakistani tests? The first point to note is that its claims are highly exaggerated. Seismic centres in India, the United States, Australia and Britain detected a single explosion in the 5 to 10 kiloton range, that is, much smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Evidence also suggests that the trigger mechanism for the exposion was provided by China just before the test. This means two things: first, Pakistan’s claims are highly exaggerated, and, more seriously, without the capacity to design and fabricate the trigger mechanism, Pakistan has no bomb. It is entirely dependent on others for the most crucial component of the bomb.

            Here is the scenario that can be determined on basis of information from knowledgeable sources. Immediately after the Indian tests, Pakistan realized that its nuclear bluff had been called. Indian as well as American and Chinese experts knew all along that Pakistan was incapable of producing a bomb, but the government had assured its people that they could explode a nuclear device any day. The Indian tests sent the Pakistani foreign minister Mr Gohar Ayub scurrying to China begging them to help Pakistan explode a bomb; domestic pressures were getting intense and the government could fall any day. China sent its technicians with a pre-fabricated trigger mechanism. This allowed Pakistan to blast a primitive device.

            If there are any more tests by Pakistan, we can expect the pattern to be similar: exaggerated claims made on the basis of an explosion using a pre-fabricated Chinese trigger mechanism. In summary, Pakistan not only has no bomb of its own, but unlikely to have one for the foreseeable future unless the crucial components like the trigger mechanism are supplied by the Chinese.

            This was confirmed by the top Israeli expert Professor Gerald Steinberg who observed soon after the Pakistani test that the ‘Islamic Bomb’ was still far from being a reality. (No one except the Pakistanis referred to Indian devices as ‘Hindu Bombs’! One of its architects is Dr Abdul Kalam.)


Myth of the arms race

            This means that the idea of an arms race in the subcontinent is largely a myth created by Pakistan to blackmail its Western allies — particularly America — into giving it both money and weapons. After the Cold War ended, Pakistan lost much of its relevance to the West, but some old friends steeped in Cold War thinking remained in the US Government willing to humor Pakistan. But now the argument was changed: it was no longer a bulwark against Soviet expansion, but a safeguard against an ‘arms race’ in the subcontinent.

            This arms race is a myth. Even after the 1974 Pokharan blast there was no arms race even though Pakistan was economically in a much better position than it is today. Also, the Cold War was very much alive. Soon Pakistan received a bonanza when Russia invaded Afghanistan. People do not realize how great has been Pakistan’s dependence on the US for its very existence. With the end of the Cold War, Pakistan had to find another rationale. It was then that arguments like stability in the subcontinent, and preventing an arms race were concocted. To make it more dramatic, a propaganda campaign was mounted suggesting that Pakistan was on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, the implication being that Pakistan had to be humored or else it would go nuclear. This was blackmail pure and simple, but the US at first was prepared to go along. The Pressler Amendment put an end to it.

            Pakistan has no industrial or even the economic infrastructure to become a nuclear power. So, instead of expensive and technologically demanding nuclear path, Pakistan took the inexpensive and low tech path of sponsoring cross border terrorism. This was accompanied by narcotics trafficking, a major industry. Soon, Pakistan became a terrorist state, and a center for the training of Islamic terrorists like the Taliban. So it had found a new identity: from being a bulwark against Communist expansion, it began to define itself as a frontline state in the expansion of Islam. The world by and large has still not caught on to the changed identity of Pakistan — as a theocratic terrorist state.


Pakistan’s gamble

            With the declaration of India as a nuclear weapons state Pakistan realized that it had lost the strategic game. It now finds itself confronted by a threshold superpower. To make matters worse, it is fully aware of its indefensible record of terrorism against India, which it now fears could come back to haunt it. Although the world knows that Pakistan is no nuclear power, the government has to maintain its pretense simply to control its own turbulent people. Further, it is engaged in a desperate game of bluff with the hope that it can gain at the negotiating table what it has lost militarily and economically.

            Pakistan’s economy is in a mess. Its military and interest payments consume 85 percent of its budget. In addition, it has a deficit of 3 billion dolars which has to be made up by foreign aid. It has now recognized that it cannot expect much from the West. Militarily it has been totally outclassed by India. This has made Pakistan gamble with its nuclear test — with Chinese help — hoping that it can gain recognition as an equal in its negotiations with India. Note that Mr Nawaz Sharief has said that he is now willing to negotiate with India.

            So here is the clue to Pakistan’s thinking. With its one weak test and inflated claims, its leaders hope to negotiate with India from a position of strength. So its nuclear test had two goals: to quiet domestic unrest, and improve its negotiating position with India. Its hope is that it can repeat its success at the Shimla Agreement when Indian politicians lost at the negotiating table what its armed forces had gained in the field.

            Pakistan is not unjustified in its belief. There are already noises that we should go back to the framework of the Shimla Agreement. But that would be a very great error. History has shown that Pakistan will not honor any agreement. Further, the conditions have changed. The Shimla Agreement gave Pakistan an opportunity to engage in cross border terrorism. Any new agreement must include enfoRcement mechanisms for ending terrorism and solving all outstanding problems. A ‘NO FIRST USE’ AGREEMENT WILL BE OF NO VALUE SINCE PAKISTAN WILL VIOLATE IT WHEN IT SUITS.

            In summary, Pakistan is no nuclear power; the arms race is a myth; and Pakistan is now engaged in a game of bluff to gain maximum negotiating advantage out of a nuclear test of no military significance. Most importantly, India’s political leaders should not throw away the victory gained by its soldiers and scientists in return for false promises on a scrap of paper. This is what they did in 1948, and again in 1971. This is what Pakistan hopes they will do again.