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Pakistan Presidents Call for Nuclear Weapons-free South Asia Should be Welcomed

by M B Naqvi, 7 December 2008

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The Daily Star, December 5, 2008

Out of the box

by M.B. Naqvi

PRESIDENT Zardari shocked the Indians by his reversal of the traditional Pakistani stance on nuclear deterrence, but has also drawn flak from rightwing bigwigs, both religious and military-linked.

Zardari has left many wondering why he chose to speak so unexpectedly. He said he hated atomic weapons and wanted a nuclear weapons-free South Asia; and that Pakistan would never use nukes first.

Few are sure that his reversal of stance is to please the Americans. This could be the overture for new high-level talks with president-elect Obama and the next Indian government. Even so, Zardari has violated many Pakistani taboos.

Everybody knows that the military’s opinion matters in Pakistan, and any departure from the military high command’s ideas can doom the government. Pakistan’s strategic thinking has been the army high command’s monopoly. It had laid down the first-strike doctrine. It should go on speculating on what Pakistan will and will not do in any crisis.

How far will the disquiet among the military-led elites go on the proposed strategic doctrine? It’s true that Pakistan’s traditional policies vis-à-vis Kashmir, India, and even the West, have met with scant success.

Is the army high command on board? Does it share Zardari’s ideas? The association of retired military officers, or those who have headed ISI in the past, have come out strongly against these ideas. The pro-PPP media has projected Zardari’s thinking without serious comment, but the opposition has mounted a media offensive against it.

Many think that these ideas are nothing more than Musharraf’s out-of-the-box thinking forced by Washington. Zardari’s critics say he is an elected dictator because the "democratic" government runs the way he dictates.

Islamabad has certainly not organised any national "thinkathon" to evolve a new national consensus. It is likely that he is simply parroting a line calculated to be acceptable to the Obama team. People expect an elected government to be able to evolve its own policies.

No change has been made in Musharraf’s policies by this government. It has only been forced to seek IMF help, which too seems to have been masterminded by Washington.

There is no evidence of any institutional examination of the issues facing this government; all are content to follow Musharraf’s policies. Why? This has taken Pakistanis by surprise. Thus, the new ideas may be Zardari’s personal views.

An ideological clash is shaping up between old quasi-religious ideologues, those who had helped evolve Pakistan military’s basic policies, and Zardari.

Their position is contrary to Zardari’s new position. Anti-nuclear campaigners are not absent from Pakistan. The government has not sought their support. Traditionalists are having a field day demolishing Zardari’s new proposals.

Pakistan’s security establishment doesn’t seem to approve of this departure from its established views. This conclusion also emerges from the fact that Jamaat-e-Islami(JI) and Jamiate Ulmai Islam (JUI), who differ from Maulana Fazlur Rehman, have thrown down the gauntlet.

They have spoken through JI chief, Qazi Hussein Ahmed, and many retired military officers. They have threatened to disrupt the logistics of supplying the over 67,000 western troops in Afghanistan. This is a serious challenge.

This is coming to a head of the two strong schools of thought in Pakistan politics. On one side is the old military-mullah alliance that is speaking strongly against what has become fashionable to call moderate Islam.

Sure, there is a small section of society in Pakistan that can be called liberal and modernistic, but can it resist the powerful military-mullah alliance? It is doubtful. There are Pakistanis and Indians who stand for peace between the two countries and nuclear disarmament.

Why not mobilise them if Islamic or other religious extremists are to be countered; neither India nor Pakistan wants to touch them. Why? The need for new thinking is urgent in Pakistan. That old policy of ambiguity deterring India has not worked.

In January 2002 India, under BJP, threatened to invade Pakistan. The rest of the world thought this was it. In the first few months Pakistan had to threaten nuking India 13 times if it aggressed. But the Indians threatened to march in. If Pakistan did not do what India was demanding, the former was dared into nuking populous India. What happened?

Anglo-American diplomacy somehow defused the crisis. But the Pakistan president had to promise that he would not let Pakistan territory be used against India. And, for good measure, the Indian defence minister broke new ground in daring Pakistan to use its nuclear weapons first and then wait for the India riposte.

That was a real life drama with everything at stake. India prevailed and the un-workability of Pakistan’s deterrence was exposed. Vajpayee only ordered the troops back much after he got Pakistan’s pledge not to support jihad in Kashmir. This was a less than glorious hour for Pakistan. That was the basis of Musharraf’s out-of-the-box thinking, which seems to be continuing.