Nuclear Pakistan: Curse of the bomb

Fission for answers

It is said that Pakistan was born on Aug 14, 1947. But like other hazy snapshots in the tampered-with album of our wishful history, this fact, nurtured through rote and repetition, has faltered under the weight of reality. If the fervor of homage and sacrifice is a reason to reconfigure Pakistan’s creation story, then the country was actually born on May 28, 1998. On that day, Pakistan announced it had carried out five successful nuclear tests; patriotism in Pakistan would henceforth be defined as a belief in the power to kill millions.

Since that day, a large section of Pakistanis have dutifully worshipped their bomb, imagining in its capacity to destroy, a safety that would insulate them from incursions by nosy neighbors and meddling powers, from wars that would chip off territory and skirmishes that would disrespect borders.

The bomb will save us, they believed, it will sustain us in these trying times (we cannot be backward if we have the bomb) and save us from trying too hard (who needs a super economy if you have a super bomb?). In times of trouble and fear, when watching the bombing elsewhere — a punished Baghdad amidst its dusty ruins, a desolate Kabul with its bombed-out streets — these Pakistanis turned to the bomb for comfort, however elusive.

But like so many other things — infrastructure and institutions, roads and rituals — the bomb too has failed Pakistan. In the past month, Pakistan’s borders have been casually ignored, security walls scaled and planes destroyed — all this despite the possession of the omnipotent trump card residing at the sacred altar of our national consciousness.

The bomb that was supposed to deter and defeat has been unable to frighten anyone into leaving us alone. It has revealed, instead, the flimsy remains of our national pride and a confused, conspiracy-infested mental landscape. Never united otherwise, Pakistanis can now share the heartbreak of knowing that they were never invincible after all, that a few men could easily outwit and outsmart, and that situating their self-worth in a bomb is exacting an infinitely bloody price.

No longer cosseted by the myth of a cure-all weapon, the bomb like an unveiled bride must be assessed in the fluorescence of a depressing and unwelcome day. It was widely known to have been procured through deception and disguise, lies and falsehoods. The man, who developed it, was chastised publicly and heroised privately, despite what some saw as his mendacity.

These sins we forgave, unwilling to recognise their potent if silent attack on national morality now poised to elevate someone accused of selling nuclear technology and promoting proliferation. It is poised to accept that it is entirely forgivable to sacrifice what is right for what is needed and most damningly that the power to destroy is more venerable than the power to befriend and create.

The losses brought by the bomb would likely be forgiven by Pakistanis if they were moral concerns alone. In the cold estimations of post-Soviet calculations, nuclear power was a deterrent, its possession meant that others would stay away, that possession alone equalled power, especially for small countries with few friends.

However, in the era of terrorism, where every living thing is a target and the propagation of fear is a means to control, a markedly different equation of nuclear power is in operation. Under its deductions, weak states with nuclear weapons attract rather than deter non-state enemies. Ideologically motivated non-state actors see weak countries as easily penetrable targets which can provide access to nuclear capabilities that would make the absence of territorial control largely irrelevant.

While the weapon caches of countries like the US are impenetrable to such groups, those of weak countries are perceived as achievable. In simple terms, there is a school of thought that Al Qaeda and similar groups will not stop targeting Pakistan as long as it possesses the nuclear bomb. In fact, maintaining the power to destroy might well mean the slow but sure destruction of the country itself.

Non-state terror groups are not alone in bestowing unwanted attention on Pakistan. Superpowers, both existing and emergent, have their own interests in the bomb, and fears that Pakistan may not be able to keep its assets secure could well increase their efforts to meddle with and muddy existing configurations. These fears do not appear far-fetched if little more than a couple of ladders, dark clothing and crossing a stream is needed to enter a naval base and wreak havoc on men and material.

If defences are seen as so fragile and security so decrepit then the concerns of those that have much to lose cannot simply be shaken off with the blind faith bestowed on the military in decades past.

Pakistanis have done a lot for the bomb; in the six squabbling decades of a meagre existence they have sacrificed education, water, sanitation and even the patched-together shreds of a national conscience to fund and fuel the military machine which birthed the bomb.

As long as Pakistanis continue to rely on conspiracy to rationalise the collage of military failures and cling to denial and delusion the curse of the bomb will not be revealed. Perhaps the 30,000 dead Pakistanis, the young brave faces of martyred naval commandos, the lined-up bodies outside mosques, will provoke the question of what the bomb, so unconditionally loved, has really given Pakistan.

Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of and an attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy.

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