WITH its economy in the doldrums amid strict controls on government expenditure because of tough conditions laid down by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), there is little to cheer today in Pakistan. To add to the country’s economic woes, inflationary pressures are making life difficult for the common man. A recent report from the World Bank notes: “Pakistan’s economy is currently under severe stress with low foreign reserves, a depreciating currency and high inflation.” Pakistan’s economy is expected to grow at 0.4 per cent in the current financial year amidst rising inflation and high energy prices. Its agricultural income is expected to contract for the first time in two decades, with industrial production also set to do likewise, resulting in supply chain disruption. Pakistan is going to remain an economic basket case, heavily dependent on foreign economic assistance for the foreseeable future.
China has been providing Pak with material and knowhow to expand its nuclear weapons for over three decades.
Despite concluding an agreement with the IMF and receiving bilateral assistance from countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Pakistan will require strict management of its foreign exchange reserves and economic austerity to get out of the present crisis. While Pakistan’s Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal had projected a
3.5 per cent growth rate this year, experts across the world do not share his optimism. In the meantime, its ‘all-weather friend’ China is also averse to opening its purse strings generously to meet Pakistan’s needs for internationally convertible currencies. Beijing’s focus will primarily remain on its Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, it is questionable whether Pakistan can emulate the success of Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has done exceedingly well in meeting the challenge of looming economic bankruptcy in the island nation with astute diplomatic and financial policies.
Amidst these pressing economic problems, Pakistan’s ‘nuclear weapon leadership’ is bent on giving good news to its people, averring that it is all set to take the country into a blissful ‘nuclear nirvana’. Pakistan’s first ‘nuclear czar’ was AQ Khan, who died in October 2021. Khan had the dubious distinction of securing employment in a Dutch Company with European affiliations, which worked on research and development of nuclear technology, to produce enriched uranium, using high-speed centrifuges. He was infuriated by Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 conflict, which he often alluded to. He gave then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto detailed information he had obtained on uranium enrichment to produce nuclear weapons. Thereafter, he became the head of Pakistan’s Uranium Enrichment Project, based in Kahuta near Islamabad. He was then able to put together the centrifuges required for uranium enrichment.
With China producing enriched uranium-based nuclear weapons, it was inevitable that Pakistan duly received the designs of nuclear weapons from Beijing. Islamabad was, thereafter, ready to assemble its nuclear weapons, which it demonstrated by testing the weapons soon after India tested its (plutonium-based) nuclear weapons in 1998. It was only a question of time before AQ Khan was eased out of office on the charges of corruption and providing nuclear weapon designs to some Islamic countries, evidently at handsome prices. Countries like the US were quite obviously not pleased with these happenings. Nevertheless, AQ Khan remains a national hero.
His successor as the head of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Programme was Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, a highly regarded artillery officer who was a prisoner of war in India in the aftermath of the 1971 Bangladesh war. It was Kidwai’s assumption of office that led to the enunciation of a nuclear doctrine by Pakistan after its nuclear tests in 1998. Kidwai’s doctrine spelt out the circumstances under which Pakistan would resort to the use of nuclear weapons. He noted that Pakistan would be ‘compelled’ to use its nuclear weapons if India attacked and conquered a “major portion of Pakistani territory”, or destroys a large portion of its land, or air forces. For good measure, Kidwai added that Pakistan would act identically if India tried to economically strangle Pakistan or destabilise it internally through large-scale subversion.
Kidwai is still the public face of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions and policies. Pakistan is today estimated to possess 170 nuclear weapons compared to India’s 164, according to some international organisations. Pakistan also has a wide range of Chinese-supplied nuclear-capable missiles, ranging from Shaheen 1 (range 750-900 km) to Shaheen 3 (range 2,750 km). Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missiles are established as being of Chinese design. At the same time, Pakistanis recognise that a nuclear conflict would be self-destructive. India’s effort has logically been based on building capacities to face ‘two-front nuclear challenges’. China has, after all, been providing Pakistan with material and knowhow to expand its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, for over three decades now. While India has nuclear capabilities to target China, it would be more than prudent for New Delhi to further strengthen the capabilities of its nuclear delivery systems. This would require the indigenous development of at least three more nuclear submarines, which will ensure that there can be no doubt anywhere about the reach of India’s nuclear weapons, and ensure the credibility of its deterrence.
Amidst this security scenario, with a politically volatile Pakistan heading for national elections by the end of this year, one can expect little or no result from any new diplomatic initiative to bring about any serious change in Pakistani thinking. While political-level talks are presently not on the cards, it would be useful to continue serious back-channel talks in which the Pakistan military is involved. The animosity between Pakistan army chief Gen Asim Munir and former PM Imran Khan goes back to the days when the latter had arbitrarily removed him from the prestigious post of the ISI chief. Imran, who was convicted and sentenced last week in the Toshakhana case, is also disliked by the Biden administration, which had a cosy relationship with former army chief Gen Bajwa who, quite evidently, had a hand in Imran’s ouster. Gen Munir will certainly not treat Imran with kid gloves.
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