Pakistan tests are acts of bravado

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THE morning after its nuclear tests, Pakistan's foreign minister Gohur Ayub Khan was in no mood for false modesty. Pakistan was now, he declared, "a nuclear weapons state", and he vowed to repel any attack from India "with a vengeance". "We have an active nuclear weapons programme, we are a nuclear power," he said.

Government assurances that Islamabad would never use nuclear weapons for offensive purposes did not do much to soften the impression given by the foreign minister that Pakistan was back in character. Over the last two and a half weeks, it had an unfamiliar new role thrust upon it by the world: nuclear paragon, lonely bearer of the torch of nuclear abstinence.

But with five explosions on Thursday afternoon in the Baluchistan desert, Pakistan gave its eloquent response: it wanted no such role. It was ready to be lambasted again, as so often in the past, for militarism and fanaticism.

Was Pakistan's decision to test merely the leopard failing to change its spots, the nation ruled for so much of its short history by military dictators proving unable to march to anything but the familiar martial tune?

Clearly, in Pakistan's view the rewards on offer for a display of restraint were insultingly scanty. Australia, for example, on Wednesday offered to double its aid to Pakistan if it declined to test - from $1.6m (pounds 1m) to $3.2m. Measured against Pakistan's economic problems, such sums are a drop in the ocean. Pakistan's foreign reserves are less than $1bn (India's are around $26bn), and this year it needs $4.5bn to meet its current account deficit.

Had the G8 been in earnest about drawing the non-proliferation line down the Indo-Pakistan border, and turning India into a solitary pariah, they should have dug deep into their pockets. They did not. Nor did they offer any security guarantees against an Indian attack.

Perhaps the West believed that, if Pakistan could not choose affluence, it would at least avoid embracing penury. If so, it was a serious miscalculation. By testing, and thereby provoking sanctions, Pakistan has guaranteed itself a bout of bleak and potentially destabilising austerity. But not to have tested, as Pakistanis see it, would be to be forced to live with the permanent threat of Indian aggression, conventional, nuclear, or both.

There was substance to such fears. After the second batch of Indian tests, on 13 May, India's foreign policy, normally in the remit of the cautious officials of the ministry of external affairs, was hijacked by belligerent Hindu nationalists. Madan Lal Khurana, a cabinet minister, practically challenged Pakistan to come outside and fight, saying India was ready for a fourth war with Pakistan - "all they have to do is tell us the time and the place".

Home minister Lal Krishna Advani threatened a new onslaught against insurgents in Kashmir, with "hot pursuit" into the sector ruled by Pakistan. And far from being held in check by the prime minister, Mr Advani was rewarded with having his area of responsibility extended to include the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

But it was not merely the sabre-rattling of the government's extremists that persuaded Pakistan that not testing was a non-option. There is a history behind the nuclear brinkmanship between the two states, from an Indian military exercise in the border state of Punjab in 1986, to the flaring insurgency in Kashmir in 1990. As tension between the two states mounted, India massed 200,000 troops on the Pakistan border.

Pakistan also understood that with the Soviets defeated in Afghanistan, there was no chance of the United States coming to its aid. The only plausible threat to India was to take out New Delhi with a nuclear bomb. It was only through intense, secret negotiations involving the US that the showdown was averted.

The vast imbalance between the two states in conventional forces - India with nearly one million troops, for example, against Pakistan with a little over half that number - meant that Pakistan feels overwhelmingly obliged to match Indian nuclear initiatives step by step.

Whether the gung-ho but inexperienced leaders of India's government foresaw the inevitability of Pakistan's tit-for-tat response is debatable. The rationale for India's tests was to haul itself up into the big power league, preferably earning a permanent seat in the Security Council in the process, while improving its security in the region. Far from being catapulted into the sort of world role it believes it deserves, India finds itself back down in the bear pit with the old enemy.