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REUTERS COLUMN : SOUTHERN ASIA'S NUCLEAR MYTHS REVISITED POST BIN LADEN



Author : C.Uday Bhaskar


Thirteen years ago to the day, on May 13, 1998 India conducted its second nuclear test - the first series having been conducted on May 11 that year.

Finally, after 24 years of ambivalence, India opted to become a state with nuclear weapons - an SNW. Global opprobrium followed in intense measure and New Delhi with Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the helm as the Prime Minister was ostracised. The U.S. led by President Bill Clinton gravely warned India that it had dug itself into a huge hole by going 'nuclear' -- for Pakistan would soon follow suit and that South Asia would become the most dangerous place in the world.

However, contrary to the popular and assiduously nurtured view, held then -- and now -- India was only catching up with Pakistan and redressing the nuclear asymmetry between the two that had grown in Rawalpindi’s favour since May 1990.

Pakistan's army had acquired credible SNW status on May 26, 1990 and this development has been documented in rigorous detail by two respected U.S. authors, Thomas Reed of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and Danny Stillman of Las Vegas Laboratory in their book "Nuclear Express" published in January 2009.

The authors corroborated the view held among some nuclear experts that China had tested a weapon design for Pakistan on May 26, 1990 and that this was part of a complex and deliberately tangled nuclear proliferation lattice among Cold War rivals that had its genesis in the U.S. nuclear enormity of August 1945.

Thus two myths have to be revisited. South Asia had become nuclear well before May 1998 and China, the first Asian nuclear weapon power (1964) had created a ‘southern’ Asian nuclear grid that enabled Pakistan and led to the A.Q. Khan nuclear Wal-mart.

Secondly, since 1990, Rawalpindi -- the GHQ of the Pak Army had become the sole custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon capability -- and was introducing a very dangerous 'out-of-the-box' strategy that leavened nuclear weapons with terrorism.

In May 1990, the Pakistan army embarked upon a high-stakes gamble against India that utilised its covert nuclear weapon capability as a firewall to step up terrorism and low intensity conflict in the Kashmir valley.

In retrospect, it may be averred that this was the period when the Pak Army introduced the concept of NWET -- or nuclear weapon enabled terror -- which was far removed from the pristine concept of the 'core' mission of the nuclear weapon that was predicated on the rectitude of the 'responsible' state that had deified nuclear deterrence as the one and only mission of the abominable nuke.

Pakistan had audaciously rewritten the nuclear rule book and was successfully pursuing a revisionist agenda which involved the redrawing of borders and wresting contested territory a la Kashmir. NWET was the means and while May 1990 was aborted for reasons that still remain opaque -- this strategy was adopted again in May 1999 in the Kargil War with General Musharraf directing the charade for the Pak GHQ.

For the U.S. and the world at large, the spectre of terrorism became a reality only after September 11, 2011 and Osama bin Laden (OBL) its more recognisable face and symbol. The worst case scenario was the exigency of the non-state entity acquiring nuclear weapons through a deviant state and using the same to advance a terrorist agenda.

Iraq became the target in 2003 and even at the time, more objective voices within the U.S. and elsewhere pointed out that like OBL in Abbottabad - the NWET elephant in the drawing room was the Pak army - but there were no takers. The true believers drew their certitude about matters nuclear in southern Asia from a different narrative and marched to a different drum.

The 'treasure trove' of data and information retrieved from OBL's mansion in Abbottabad may contain some definitive clues about how determined and close the al Qaeda was to the nuclear weapon or material and the degree to which the Pakistani state was complicit.

The 10th anniversary of the twin tower collapse in September 2011 was laden with multi-textured import for OBL -- pun unintended -- and NWET the most attractive and effective option.

OBL has been interred to a watery grave but the malignancy of NWET is a reality that has to be dealt with adroitly. The Pak army has created a virtual reality of cultivated paranoia, where it is the eternal victim of external perfidy, and Galahad-like valour as savior of the state and the Islamic faith -- a domain that it inhabits in menacing isolation.

Rawalpindi has to be weaned away from the nuclear weapon capability that it acquired in May -- covertly in 1990 and overtly in 1998 and the corrosive strategy it has chosen.

And this can be done only if the many nuclear myths and related narratives apropos southern Asia are revisited with honesty and humility.
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