Pakistan ponders its price for calling off nuclear test

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PAKISTAN'S leaders are caught between intense pressure at home to match India's nuclear tests of last week and equally strong demands from the rest of the world to refrain from an arms race that could spread to the rest of Asia.

Not all of this attention is unwelcome. While India has attracted international condemnation with its underground blasts, Pakistan is in the position of being able to consider its asking price for not following suit. The Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who has spoken by telephone with President Bill Clinton, yesterday met the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, who was sent on a lightning visit to Islamabad. Officials travelling with Mr Talbott said they had failed to dissuade Pakistanis from crossing the nuclear threshold and detonate its first device, although their impression was that Pakistan had not yet made up its mind.

On Thursday morning, the Foreign Minister, Ayub Khan, said Pakistan was "ready to match India, and better", but yesterday Mr Sharif kept India and the rest of the world guessing. "In the face of these ominous developments, which pose an immediate threat to our security, we cannot be expected to remain complacent," he said in a letter to the G8 summit of industrialised states this weekend in Birmingham. Shamshad Ahmad, secretary of the Foreign Ministry, said the G8's failure to agree to American appeals for harsh economic sanctions against India was disappointing.

In Pakistan there is near unanimity that the country should follow India's test with one of its own. Almost all political parties and groups have come out in support of meeting the Indian challenge, no matter what the cost, and the media have joined the hype. The federal Cabinet has already authorised Mr Sharif to take what action he sees fit.

It appears certain that the test site at Chaggi, in the Baluchistan desert, has been ordered to prepare for an underground explosion, which could come within days. Pakistan has long been assumed to have the components for a nuclear bomb, and to be able to assemble one at short notice.

Mr Talbott was said to have a mandate to "placate" Pakistan. Significantly, Mr Sharif raised the question of Kashmir, the focus of two of Pakistan's three wars with India. Islamabad also feels aggrieved over its order for F16 warplanes, which were paid for but never delivered, because of Pakistan's refusal to abandon nuclear development.

The Pakistani programme began in earnest after India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974, when Zulfikar Ali Butto was in power. It continued under the man who overthrew him, Zia ul-Haq, while the US looked the other way; Pakistan had a key role at that time, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Since the end of the Cold War Pakistan has been unwilling to sign the nuclear test ban treaty while India refuses to do so.

India's initiative has helped to rally public support for Mr Sharif at a time of growing economic problems, a worsening law-and-order situation and divisions within the governing coalition. These domestic factors may lead to him go ahead with a test, but he will also have to weigh the economic consequences. Yesterday an Indian official said US sanctions would cost the Indian economy $1bn a year; Pakistan is more exposed than its neighbour to international economic conditions, and is also under pressure from Japan, a key partner, not to "go nuclear".