Looking back: 20 years after Pakistan tested nuclear weapons
On May 28, 1998, Pakistan conducted five nuclear tests and a sixth one two days later in response to Indian detonations. The tests had become a political imperative for Islamabad amid uneasy ties with its bigger neighbour. “We have settled the score,” then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif declared. And South Asia became a potential nuclear flashpoint.
The immediate trigger for the Pakistani nuclear tests were the Indian tests on May 11 and 13, 1998. Although matching India had become an existential need for Pakistan, defying American pressure to get there was no easy task. It was no secret that Pakistan had been pursuing nuclear capability after India’s first test in 1974. Chinese help for Pakistan’s nuclear programme was all too well known. But the Indian tests that spooked Washington in 1998 brought Pakistan under immense pressure against going nuclear. Karl F Inderfurth, who served as assistants secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997-2001, later wrote: “President (Bill) Clinton was on the phone with PM (Nawaz) Sharif on five separate occasions, making it very clear that he recognized that Pakistan would be under great pressure to test, but that Pakistan’s interests would be better served not to and that if it did not.”
Two nuclear-armed neighbours outside the NPT regime, their ties marked by constant strains, couldn’t move beyond the basics in building mutual confidence on the nuclear issue. The two countries annually exchange a list of their nuclear installations. India has a nuclear doctrine of no first use. It also declared a voluntary moratorium on testing. Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine resembles that of the US during the Cold War: if the integrity of the country is being threatened, it reserves the right to use nuclear weapons. If the US was talking about the conventional superiority of Russia (then Soviet Union), Pakistan was taking about India’s. But Pakistan couldn’t establish its credibility when it came to non-proliferation. The father of its nuclear programme, AQ Khan, was found by the Americans of being involved in an illegal network that sent bomb-making designs and equipment to at least three countries. Although Pakistan achieved nuclear parity with India, its hope of getting a seat at the nuclear high table remains a very distant dream.
In a span of two weeks, the two South Asian countries and bitter rivals had tested nuclear devices . In the case of Pakistan, the US was willing to offer many sops, which included lifting sanctions that had been clamped for its pursuit of nuclear weapons; that would have led to larger economic assistance and a more profitable military relationship. In 1985, the US Congress adopted an amendment proposed by senator Larry Pressler to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, banning economic and military assistance to Pakistan unless the US President could certify annually that Islamabad did not possess a nuclear weapon and that US aid would help reduce the risk of Pakistan possessing one. As expected, international condemnation followed the tests, with the United Nations Security Council passing a resolution against them; pressure mounted on both India and Pakistan to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). US sanctions kicked in. But Pakistan had been the most trusted ally of the US in South Asia for long. Strobe Talbot, the US interlocutor with India, was also dealing with Pakistan.
9/11 was a watershed for Pakistan too. As he prepared for the war against terror, exercising the authority vested on him by the US Congress in 1999, on September 22, 2001 President George W. Bush lifted sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan for their 1998 nuclear tests. The president also removed other sanctions related to Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons. State department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “We intend to support those who support us. We intend to work with those governments that work with us in this fight (against terrorism).”