Michael KreponPakistan’s Compulsion is Not a Choice

Note to readers: My recent essay, “Pakistan’s Choice,” met with mixed reviews, at best, from colleagues in Pakistan. I wrote about the growing distance between Pakistani security narratives and narratives that outsiders hold about Pakistan. Patching up relations won’t happen without personal and intellectual engagement. So I asked Adil Sultan to provide ACW readers with his views in the form of a rebuttal. Adil is a former Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, who has gone on to get his Ph.D. and to teach at the National Defence University in Islamabad. His essay follows.

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Michael Krepon, in a recent article, ‘Pakistan’s Choice’, has endeavored redefining India’s nuclear motivations by arguing that ‘New Delhi tested nuclear devices for reasons of national security – just like Pakistan.’ History tells us otherwise. India’s nuclear pursuits were always guided by the consideration of ‘prestige’, while security remains the most parsimonious justification for all states, including India, for pursuing their national ambitions.

Scott Sagan and some other scholars have provided useful models for understanding national nuclear drivers and motivations. According to him, states pursue nuclear weapons for a variety of reasons, including; security, prestige, domestic politics, or a combination of several factors that could be termed as ‘multicausality’. India’s and Pakistan’s case studies are no different. These two states also developed their nuclear programs due to a combination of several factors, but the leading driver for India remains ‘prestige’ and ‘security’ for Pakistan.

India started its nuclear pursuit in the early 1950s during a period of extreme cordiality with China and faced no existential threat that could justify acquisition of nuclear weapons, while Pakistan was still struggling to find its feet in the aftermath of uneven partition in 1947. The US was aware of India’s ambitions that were substantiated by statements made by the father of India’s nuclear program, Homi J. Bhabha, in 1958. Once, he claimed that India could produce a nuclear device in eighteen months.

In March 1966, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk was provided a top-secret memo, which concluded that India was likely to build its own nuclear weapons. The report suggested that in order to stop India from pursuing the weapons path, the United States might offer India access to US nuclear warheads. The urge to contain China is therefore not a new US ambition.

India tested its first nuclear device in 1974 and labeled it as a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) to minimize international criticism. One scholar later termed the Indian decision to conduct nuclear weapons test as an “expression of power rather than weakness.” There was nothing ‘peaceful’ in India’s PNE of 1974.

India did seek to conduct further tests, but initially was prevented due to international sensitivities. In 1996, the short-lived government of the Bharatiya Janata Party could not fulfill its promise of making India a declared nuclear-weapon state, but after returning to power in 1998, it immediately followed through its electoral promise by conducting five nuclear tests. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpaee, while announcing the tests, stated that India had become the ‘sixth’ nuclear weapon state and should be treated as such by the other five.

Commenting on India’s thinking, Strobe Talbott wrote in his book Engaging India (2004):

“[India’s] strategy was to play for the day when the United States would get over its huffing and puffing and, with a sigh of exhaustion or a shrug of resignation, accept a nuclear-armed India as a fully responsible and fully entitled member of the international community. The Indians conducted their test knowing that it would provoke American castigation but also hoping that it might have another consequence: perhaps it would force the United States to pay them serious, sustained, and respectful attention of a kind the Indians felt they had never received before.”

India was not wrong in its assessment. The 1998 tests established India’s credibility and attracted U.S. attention more than India might have anticipated. India was offered a strategic partnership that also included civil nuclear cooperation, for which the United States had to amend its own domestic law (through the Hyde Act) to accommodate a non-Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) state like India. Washington also coerced the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to exempt India from its guidelines, so that the the United States and other nuclear suppliers could benefit from India’s growing nuclear industry. In 2010, the United States declared that it would support Indian membership in the NSG and other export-control regimes. India is now a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime and is moving towards formal NSG membership through American efforts. The membership of export-control regimes would help India to become a mainstream partner in the global nonproliferation regime, but without any reciprocal obligations towards disarmament or other NPT-related commitments that apply to the five established nuclear-weapon states.

In contrast, Pakistan was a reluctant entrant into the nuclear field, as it was considered a difficult proposition for a country with limited resources and technical know-how. To keep nuclear weapons away from the region, Pakistan actively participated in the NPT negotiations. Once India refused to sign by terming NPT as ‘nuclear apartheid’, Pakistan also opted to retain its options.

Despite India’s reluctance, Pakistan continued to offer various proposals that could have prevented nuclearization of South Asia. Amongst the major initiatives Pakistan proposed declaring South Asia as a nuclear-weapons free zone (1974); making a joint declaration renouncing the acquisition or manufacturing of nuclear weapons (1978); mutual inspection of each other’s nuclear facilities (1978); simultaneous acceptance of the NPT or full-scope international safeguards; a bilateral or regional test ban treaty (1987); and a zero-missile regime in South Asia (1994).

India remained dismissive towards these proposals, since it did not want to be hyphenated with Pakistan on the nuclear issue. It sees itself in the league of major powers and sees nuclear weapons as a pass to UNSC permanent membership, as mentioned by India’s former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral during his conversation with US President Clinton in 1997. By his own later account, Gujral referred to an old saying about Indians having a a third eye:

“I told President Clinton that when my third eye looks at the door into the Security Council Chamber it sees a little sign that says, ‘only those with economic wealth or nuclear weapons allowed.’ I said to him, ‘It is very difficult to achieve economic wealth.’ “

(This quote appears in George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, p. 400.)

The implication was clear: nuclear weapons were relatively easy to build and detonate and could offer an apparent shortcut to great-power status. This mindset prevailed amongst successive Indian leaderships that led India to become a declared nuclear-weapon state in order to claim the stature of a global power and eventually permanent UNSC membership.

Krepon argues that Pakistan’s nuclear narrative does not attract Western capitals (read, Washington) due to its reluctance to rein in militant groups fighting against Afghanistan and India. In other words, Pakistan would only be seen as trustworthy if it were able to deliver what U.S. military might has not been able to do in Afghanistan during the last decade, despite its tremendous technological sophistication, or what India could not achieve in Kashmir through brutal and oppressive policies with over half a million troops for the last several years.

If Pakistan’s narrative lacks acceptability, it is not because of what Pakistan can or cannot do for the United States, but is an outcome of geo-strategic realignments where India is emerging as a major strategic partner and Pakistan once again as a dispensable entity. American apprehensions about Pakistan’s nuclear capability, especially its tactical nuclear weapons, are not because it threatens the security of the United States, but because as it prevents India from establishing its hegemony in the region.

Krepon and several others often go wrong on their analysis taking Kargil (1999) as a reference point for South Asian instability. India-Pakistan history of conflict predates Kargil. In 1971, Pakistan lost half of its territory due to an Indian-sponsored insurgency in East Pakistan. In 2015, current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly acknowledged his own participation in supporting this separatist movement that led to Pakistan’s dismemberment. India’s current National Security Advisor and Defence Minister have threatened to destabilize Baluchistan by following a similar strategy. There is hardly an example in history where senior government leaders and officials have so blatantly threatened sponsoring terrorism against another state. More worrying is the fact that these leaders hold the button to India’s nuclear weapons.

Krepon has gone fundamentally wrong once he compares “India’s poor record of governance in Kashmir with Pakistan’s poor record of governance in Baluchistan.” Kashmir is recognized as a disputed territory in UN Resolutions, while Baluchistan is a sovereign Pakistani territory with no dispute. It would be wise not to be carried away with PM Modi’s blusters, which ironically are taken as new facts of history because of the overwhelming influence of Indian narrative in Washington.

Krepon has also tried to create a wedge between Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which is mischievous. Those familiar with the history would agree that there exists unique consensus on the nuclear issue in Pakistan. The nuclear-weapons program was started by Mr Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and has been controlled and advanced by successive civilian and military governments. It would therefore be unrealistic to argue that there exists divergence in national goals when it comes to nuclear issues.

Pakistan opted to pursue the nuclear-weapons path out of its security compulsion, as it did not have any other choice. Pakistan’s nuclear journey has been difficult, but the development of an effective deterrent has helped it to neutralize an existential threat that it faced from its eastern neighbor. Pakistan neither has the ambition of a global power, nor the resources to engage in an arms race with any other country.

The sponsored narrative targeting Pakistan’s nuclear credentials and holding it responsible for the sins committed by the others in this part of the world would only widen the gap between Washington and Islamabad, which suits neither of the parties, nor the interests of the international community.


  1. Toby Fenwick (History)

    Thank-you both for a fascinating debate. However, I would caution Dr Sultan that much of the narrative in the west about Pakistan being in effect a less responsible power than India does stem from the failure/unwillingness to stop cross-border infiltration into Kashmir, continued hosting of the Taliban and assorted salafist groups operating in Afghanistan, and, of course, the hiding place of Bin Laden for so many years.

    It is this last one that is especially problematic, because, as Dr Sultan surely recognizes Pakistan is undermined either by their claim that the Government, the military and/or ISI had no idea that Bin Laden was in residence (and therefore are incompetent) or the scarcely more reassuring position that they were simply lying to the world in protecting him.

    Neither is a good look, and either makes Pakistan less trusted with its arsenal internationally. Add to this the activities of A Q Khan (unmentioned by either Dr Krepon or Dr Sultan) and the widespread belief of an agreement to supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons if required, and it is hard not to see Pakistan as significantly more destabilising than India.

    (And before anyone asks, I disagree vehemently with US policy towards the Indian nuclear programme, and the MCTR.)

    • Essar (History)

      If we look at things from what is released for general consumption by mainstream media outlets, then yes your arguments are correct. In reality though, war is not a black and white affair and that is what Pakistan has been engaged in for almost 15 years since Afghanistan was invaded by the US and Pakistan was dragged into the action forcibly. They have paid the heaviest price in human casualties and the world tends to ignore that.

      Of course the Pakistan Army knew about Osama and yes a deal was struck with the US to get him while Pakistan pretended ignorance. It is how wars are fought in this region Mr. Toby, everyone has to play the game.

      As for AQ Khan, lets open up the books for Canada, France and the US profiting from the sales of nuclear technology to ‘non’ nuclear countries long before AQ Khan was in the picture.

      It would be fair to request equal moderation to all countries despite what you might see in a Bollywood or a Hollywood movie.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Half the blog is spent proving that India developed nuclear weapons for reasons of prestige, not security concerns. If this be true (as I believe it is), Pakistan has no need for nuclear weapons to prevent a nuclear attack from India.

    Does Pakistan need nuclear weapons to prevent a conventional attack from India? As an objective outside observer, I see no evidence of a nefarious Indian plan, plot, or even a desire to invade and conquer Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan needs neither nuclear weapons nor even a particularly strong army to defend against a hypothetical Indian conquest that will never happen.

    So what is left? In practice, the nuclear weapons are being used to fend off Indian conventional punishment for terrorist attacks on India emanating from Pakistan. This actual use of nuclear weapons is both bizarre and perverse. It exposes Pakistan, India, and the rest of the world to an unseemly high risk of nuclear war for no good reason.

    The author claims that Pakistan’s “development of an effective deterrent has helped it to neutralize an existential threat that it faced from its eastern neighbor.” This talk of an existential danger from India is no more convincing than North Korea’s similar claim of existential danger from the United States.

  3. Tosk59 (History)

    Adil Sultan would have us believe that Pakistan reluctantly turned to the bomb because it had no other choice. And this after years of fighting to keep the subcontinent nuclear free; ultimately being forced to go nuclear to “neutralize an existential threat.”

    The fact of the matter is that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons became inevitable upon India’s detonation in 1974. Bhutto’s “eat grass” quote dates back to 1965!

    So, yes, India went nuclear for reasons of prestige (incidentally, the only reason the UK and France maintain their ‘independent’ nuclear forces). And Pakistan did it due to its massive inferiority complex vis a vis India. I suppose that means we can blame India for both!