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Going ballistic: Why Imran Khan's nuclear threat is a sign of Pakistani impotence

With the acquisition of nuclear weapons, Pakistanis may feel cockier as they can now threaten nuclear Armageddon on the planet

Rakesh Krishnan Simha   New Delhi     Last Updated: September 8, 2019  | 13:34 IST
Going ballistic: Why Imran Khan's nuclear threat is a sign of Pakistani impotence
After India's Kashmir checkmate, the ear to ear grins have disappeared from the faces of the Pakistani leaders

Powerless to do anything after India revoked Article 370 and turned Jammu & Kashmir into a union territory, the Pakistani political-military leadership has been reduced to firing rockets on Twitter, trying to storm the Indian embassy in London, and issuing threats of nuclear war.

What's ironic is the Pakistan Army (which has 600,000 soldiers) urging Pashtuns to fight in Kashmir. A clash with India would be too much for the corrupt generals of the Pakistan Army. The conqueror of corner plots doesn't have the cojones to fight the powerful Indian Army. Having lost all four previous wars against India, the actual war would be well outside their comfort zone.

Nearly broke and facing unprecedented inflation, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been on expeditions to Beijing, Washington and the Gulf emirates. In fact, so happy was Khan after the US released a few measly millions for the Pakistani military that upon his return from Washington DC he said, like a gushing bride, "It doesn't feel like I have come back from overseas, it feels like I have come back with the World Cup."

But after India's Kashmir checkmate, the ear to ear grins have disappeared from the faces of the Pakistani leaders. Most of them now wear a grim look as they have to explain what went wrong to an increasingly despondent - an irate - public which had been deluded for decades that the invincible Pakistan Army could roll into Delhi and defeat the Hindus at will.

Also Read: Pakistan would not use nuclear weapons first: Imran Khan

In order to justify their existence, the Pakistani elites are now using their final card - threaten nuclear war over the Kashmir issue and hope to get the world's attention.

Pakistani art of negotiation

Pakistan is the only country in the world which negotiates with a gun to its head. Pakistani commentators like to say they can turn Mumbai and Delhi into ashes within minutes of war breaking out. This is their favourite catchphrase which they use on TV talk shows, at international forums and before anyone who cares to listen.

In a whiny editorial in the Indiaphobic New York Times, Imran Khan once again rattled the nuclear sabre: "If the world does nothing to stop the Indian assault on Kashmir and its people, there will be consequences for the whole world as two nuclear-armed states get ever closer to a direct military confrontation."

Also Read: Imran Khan issues nuclear threat after Modi-Trump meet

Khan cited Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to show India's belligerence. Rajnath had recently made it clear that the future of India's "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons will "depend on circumstances". Since irony is not a faculty that Pakistanis have in abundance, Khan failed to see that India's position on no first use now fully aligns with that of Pakistan.

Islamabad's favourite strategy for the past several decades has been to go to the brink, get into a war it cannot win and hope that China and the West will step to stop India from delivering the knockout punch.

Nuclear capabilities

Before we analyse the Pakistani nuclear bogey, let's do an inventory check of its arsenal. Pakistan has cranked up the production of nuclear weapons in a bid to pull ahead of India in the South Asian version of the nuclear arms race.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) puts the Pakistani arsenal at around 120 warheads. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, an independent group that estimates worldwide nuclear production, "Pakistan may have a stockpile of material sufficient for more than 200 weapons and could currently be producing material for about 12-21 weapons per year. It has a capacity to increase this production rate to 14-27 weapons per year when two under construction reactors become available."

Also Read: Pakistan says it'll give 'fullest possible response' to India over Kashmir

Judging by the pace at which Pakistan's doomsday stockpile is growing, the Islamic country could overtake France to become the fourth-largest nuclear weapons state by around 2024. Since the raison d'etre of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme is to counter India's conventional might, should India be worried?

A difference of 10 or 20 nuclear weapons is hardly alarming. Even if Pakistan overtakes France's total of 300 warheads and the Indian tally is, say, 200, it will matter little in a nuclear exchange. Even 100 is overkill - for, there just aren't enough targets in all of Pakistan.

Islamabad's nuclear dilemma

From Pakistan's point of view, the dilemma is bigger. It can keep producing as many nuclear warheads as it wants to, but whether it can actually use them is a totally different matter. While the Indian strategic forces can erase Pakistan off the map with a dozen well-aimed warheads, India is too big to be decapitated by a first strike.

"Nuclear warfare is not a commando raid or commando operation with which Pakistan is more familiar," says Subhash Kapila, an international relations and strategic affairs analyst at the New Delhi-based South Asia Analysis Group. "Crossing the nuclear threshold is so fateful a decision that even strong American Presidents in the past have baulked at exercising it or the prospects of exercising it," he added.

Islamabad cannot expect New Delhi would sit idle and suffer a nuclear strike without massive retaliation. So basically, if Pakistan goes for the nuclear trigger first, it commits suicide. If India goes for first-use, Pakistan still ceases to exist. It's lose-lose for Pakistan in every situation.

As US strategic analyst, Ralph Peters, the author of Looking for Trouble, explains, "Pakistan's leaders know full well a nuclear exchange would leave their country a wasteland. India would dust itself off and move on."

In fact, New Delhi called Islamabad's nuclear bluff during the Kargil War, when it launched a ferocious offensive to push back the Pakistanis from the Himalayan heights. The Pakistanis had assumed India would not dare to risk nuclear war, believing they would use nuclear weapons early on in a conflict.

Also Read: Pakistan will no longer seek talks with India: Prime Minister Imran Khan

According to Kapila, the myth of Pakistan's low nuclear threshold is planted by US academia or probably officially inspired to keep India's political leadership in awe of the fearful consequences of a nuclear war.

In January 2000, India's then defence minister George Fernandes observed that in precipitating the Kargil War, Pakistan "had not absorbed the real meaning of nuclearisation - that it can deter only the use of nuclear weapons, but not all and any war".

Who else faces the Pakistani nuclear threat?

Ironically, the biggest threat from the Pakistani nukes is not to India, which has developed adequate countermeasures, but to the West, which winked at Islamabad's clandestine nuclear programme during the Cold War.

There is a possibility that radicalised Pakistani military officers with access to nuclear weapons could collaborate with the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda or even members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to launch a nuclear attack on the West or Israel. A compact Pakistani battlefield nuke smuggled into New York, Riyadh or Tel Aviv is the ultimate jihadi wet dream.

The ease with which terrorists are able to penetrate well-defended strategic targets in Pakistan such as military bases, ports and airports highlights the threat that these groups might even launch an assault against nuclear weapons depots.

Imploding economy

The India-Pakistan arms race is driven by the same set of fears and misinformation that sparked the ruinous arms race between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War.

The Manhattan Project scientists estimated 100-200 nuclear weapons would have been more than enough to defend America. But driven by the fear its own deterrent was not enough and that the Russians had more, the US went on a nuclear buildup, peaking at 31,255 warheads in 1967.

Not to be outdone, the Soviets decided they must overtake the US in both conventional and nuclear weapons. The Russian arsenal stood at an astounding 45,000 nuclear warheads.

The Soviets were ahead by miles, and yet all that firepower couldn't help them when an internal revolution broke up the country. It wasn't the arms race per se that weakened the Soviet Union's economy; rather it was the desire to overtake the US - whose economy was several times bigger - that exhausted the Soviets.

Pakistan is making the same strategic mistake. Its plan to achieve at least nuclear parity with India and then overtake its giant neighbour will only spell doom for its economy. For, Pakistan is a dirt poor country, which is dependent on handouts from the West and the Gulf states.

Producing nuclear fissile materials is an extremely complicated and expensive process. Maintaining a growing arsenal and then securing it round the clock also requires massive manpower and a huge expenditure outlay. Unlike India, Pakistan cannot sustain production and maintain the arsenal without driving itself into bankruptcy.

With the acquisition of nuclear weapons, Pakistanis may feel cockier as they can now threaten nuclear Armageddon on the planet. Visions of a full-blown nuclear exchange (say, 50-100 nuclear explosions) in South Asia are enough to get the world's attention.

The problem is Islamabad has been doing this since the 1980s and most astute observers are aware these are empty threats with no intention to deliver - and little courage to push the doomsday button. The only people who continue to amplify Pakistan's threats are the left-liberal media in the West and India.

(Rakesh Krishnan is a New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst)

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