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Pakistan Reader# 383, 16 September 2022

Pakistan at 75: The Many Uses of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons



Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi

Economically not in good shape, politically stressed to find the right civil-military balance, diplomatically struggling to rebuild relations with USA while stabilising those with the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, domestically coping with the aftermath of unprecedented floods, Pakistan is once again at a crossroads – as it often has been in the 75 years of its existence. However, there is one possession that suffuses the country with pride and gives it the confidence that the world cannot afford to let it sink. Its nuclear weapons provide it with the assurance that its existence as a functioning nation matters to the region and to the world.

Pakistan, in fact, has not hesitated to use this lever for many purposes – as a security tool for deterring conventional war, as a means for establishing strategic parity, as a shield for fomenting sub-conventional war, as a bargaining chip for economic and military assistance, and as a pedestal for assuming leadership of the Islamic world. Amongst the range of uses, nuclear deterrence is the least important function of these weapons!

The primary motivation for Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons was the perceived threat from India, especially after the experience of the dismemberment in 1971. Fearing an existential threat, then Prime Minister Bhutto was convinced that only nuclear weapons could avert such a possibility. This was particularly seen to be necessary in the face of the conventional superiority of Indian military. As a weak nation, Pakistan believed that its security lay in possessing nuclear weapons that would constrain India’s temptation to use military force.

Its nuclear weapons, therefore, became for Pakistan a means to stand up to India as an equal. As seen from Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan Army, the nuclear capability helped bridge the power asymmetry with India more effectively than all other attempts at alliance building and conventional weapons acquisitions.

Once armed with nuclear weapons by the late 1980s, Pakistan found another use for them. Keen to deter a full-scale war with India but desirous of altering the status quo on Kashmir, Pakistan discovered that proxy war could effectively be conducted from behind the shield of nuclear weapons. So, terrorism became a low-cost tool to keep India unsettled, while deterring the possibility of an Indian riposte by threatening Pakistani use of nuclear weapons. Pakistan found the best strategy in projecting the threat of quick escalation of a conflict to the nuclear level as a means to inject caution into Indian response to terror triggers. In the decades since then, the risk of nuclear war has been routinely magnified to deter conventional conflict and to raise fear amongst the international community about the imminence of such a possibility. In doing so, Pakistan is a unique example of a nuclear armed state using terrorism against another nuclear armed state while utilising the shield of its nuclear weapons to deter conventional conflict.

Another use that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have been put to is to manipulate the US for conventional arms and economic assistance. It may be recalled that after the conduct of the peaceful nuclear explosion by India in 1974, then PM Bhutto (who had already set his country on the path of nuclear weapons acquisition in January 1972) had warned the US that if his country was not given “sufficient conventional weapons”, it would “make a big jump forward for concentrating all its energy on acquiring the nuclear capability.”[i] He was obviously emboldened to make such threats since US President Nixon had already stated in September 1973, “Independence and integrity of Pakistan is a cornerstone of American foreign policy.”[ii]

While USA was solicited for helping build Pakistan’s conventional military in order to keep it away from nuclear proliferation, several Islamic countries were simultaneously but clandestinely approached too to finance the nuclear weapons programme. The concept of “Islamic Bomb” was used in the 1970s-80s to garner support for the programme by portraying it as a capability that belonged to the larger Islamic community. This projection allowed it to get material and ideological support from other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran. The status attached to the pioneering technology was also exploited to assume leadership of Islamic countries.

However, such a projection of the wider belongingness of the weapons was discontinued after the revelations of AQ Khan network in 2003. Given the criticism of Pakistan for being the fountainhead of nuclear proliferation, Islamabad was at pains to show its high standards of implementing controls over security of materials and technology.

In 75 years of its existence, successive Pakistani civilian and military leaders have alluded to the nuclear weapons programme as a ‘unique national success story” amid many failures. The weapons have been effectively used as a unifying rallying point for national pride and to demonstrate the scientific and technological modernity of the country.

For varying reasons, therefore, nuclear weapons have been and will remain central to Pakistan’s sense of existence. This was rather graphically explained by Gen Mirza Aslam Beg in 1994 when he wrote, “Oxygen is basic to life and one does not debate its desirability… nuclear deterrence has assumed that life-saving property for Pakistan.”[iii] Accepting this assumption, the successive governments have struggled to build an arsenal as per its vision of full spectrum deterrence. This includes warheads of varied yields and missiles of varying ranges to signal deterrence of conflict at every level.

Pakistan is unlikely to abandon this posture – not until it finds it prudent to abandon the policy of terror against India and overcome its India-centric threat perceptions. Despite its own large scale conventional modernisation, the projection of use of nuclear weapons will be employed to deter the possibility of an Indian conventional attack. Understanding the many roles of nuclear weapons in Pakistan’s national security psyche can help India find answers to the challenge that Pakistan’s nuclear strategy poses for India.

References
[i] PB Sinha and RR Subramanian, Nuclear Pakistan: Atomic Threat to South Asia (New Delhi: Vision Books Pvt Ltd., 1980), p. 70
[ii] Savita Datt, To Chagai and Beyond: Nuclear Developments in Pakistan (New Delhi: IK International Pvt Ltd., 2003), pp 42-44.
[iii] Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Imperatives”, National Development and Security, vol.3, no. 10, Nov 1994, pp. 29-41.

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