FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Sharif ShujaNews Weekly
Pakistan and the Islamic N-bomb
, August 14, 2004
The war on terror has changed the perspective of every citizen in the Western world. This war is against an idea, an idea that has attempted to hijack a great religion, and to some extent has succeeded.
What began on September 11 is still being sorted out by Western society, and the new realities of globalisation have yet to be fully determined. However, some things are now clear:
- Although the US has unprecedented power capabilities in relative terms to other states, its vulnerability has increased. Americans and American corporations face enormous risk throughout the world;
- The war on terror is going to be a long and difficult conflict. The enemy is using the very ideals of freedom and liberty in Western civilisation to work against the West; and
- The cost of this war is going to be great. That cost will not only include the direct cost of waging the war, in resources, people's lives, and the cost of rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq, but indirect costs as well.
The war is on the threats posed by non-state actors, especially those who are inspired largely by a global, anti-state ideology such as the Taliban/Al Qaeda's pan-Islamist vision.
Post-September 11, the old threat of nuclear holocaust has acquired a new dimension, i.e., the possible possession and use of nuclear weapons by terrorists. In Afghanistan, structural designs for nuclear weapons and other such materials were confiscated from underground hideouts of the al Qaeda terrorist group.
Much has been said about the stability and instability of nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan since the late 1980s.
The proponents of nuclear deterrence in South Asia, who argue that the introduction of nuclear weapons has prevented the outbreak of a large-scale conventional conflict between India and Pakistan, generally belong to the "State-as-a-rational-actor" school of thought.
On the other side are those who worry about the new threat posed by the intrusion of non-state and anti-state actors and agendas, which are widely perceived as "irrational" in their ideological orientation.
Their ultimate stated objective is the destruction of the modern international system based on nation-states, and they can, therefore, be described as anti-state actors in nature and purpose.
An important objective of the global anti-terrorism campaign is to keep nuclear weapons and nuclear explosive material out of the hands of terrorist organisations, rogue regimes, and violent sub-national groups.
However, the linkage between religious extremism and nuclear deterrence in South Asia has not been fully explored. The nuclear weapons capabilities of India and Pakistan invariably impact on the security environment of the Middle East and Central Asia.
While the Pakistani Government insists that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are India-specific, many Islamists see Pakistan's nukes as an "Islamic bomb" that should be used to defend the broader interests of the entire Muslim world.
The idea of an Islamic bomb dates back to the 1970s. A number of Muslim states such as Libya, Iraq and Pakistan were reported to be aiming for nuclear capability. Instead of being viewed as "national nuclear programs", their quest for nuclear capability was perceived through the prism of religious identity.
Against the background of the newly emerging sense of solidarity among Muslim states after the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and the subsequent oil crisis, their efforts were accorded a religious dimension.
These countries were seen as attempting to develop an "Islamic bomb" that could threaten Israel and the Middle East. As the most technologically advanced Muslim country, Pakistan was credited with the possibility of developing the first Islamic bomb.
Pakistan's Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was at the forefront of this religious characterisation of the national nuclear program. He argued that "all of the other great civilisations - the Christians, Jews, Hindus and Communists - have nuclear capability. Pakistan therefore also had a right and responsibility to acquire this capability".
He told the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) countries in Lahore in 1974 that Pakistan's bomb would be an "Islamic bomb" and could be the foundation for Islamic countries acquiring strategic military capacity to counter other nuclear weapons powers.
The country's analysts and academics espoused similar ideas. This was an indication that Pakistan would be willing to supply nuclear material and know-how to other Islamic countries.
Their portrayals of a Pakistani bomb as an Islamic bomb could be attributed to two causes.
First, against the background of the Islamic Summit in Lahore in 1974, the idea of Muslim unity was eagerly accepted and adopted by the Pakistani public.
So was the notion that each Muslim state had the right and responsibility to use all available instruments of power to protect the collective right of the Muslim Ummah to be accorded recognition in the international system.
Secondly, and more importantly, the references to an Islamic bomb stemmed from a need for assistance from Middle Eastern states. Islamabad contacted countries such as Saudi Arabia and Libya that had been seeking a leadership role in the Islamic world, and reportedly offered access to its nuclear technology in return for financial assistance.
Probably keen to reassure its Arab neighbours that its offers were valid, these secret moves were accompanied by claims that Pakistan's nuclear program would serve the interests of the entire Islamic community.
To some extent, the identification of Pakistan's nuclear program along religious lines continued at the declared level during General Zia-ul-Haq's rule. During his eleven-year rule (1977-88), Zia presented Pakistan's nuclear program as part of a civilisational search for power.
Speaking to an analyst, for instance, he was reported as saying: "China, India, USSR and Israel in the Middle East, possess the atomic arms. No Muslim country has any. If Pakistan has such a weapon, it would reinforce the power of the Muslim world."
However, at the actual level, as it moved closer to acquiring nuclear capability, Pakistan began distancing itself from the idea of sharing nuclear technology with other Muslim states.
In early 1988, for example, the Iranian Government broached the idea of having access to Pakistan's nuclear technology, in return for which Islamabad would receive approximately US$5 billion annually. Zia refused to accept such a suggestion.
His rejection may have been partly prompted by a realisation that such an arrangement would incur the wrath of the international community, especially the United States.
Essentially, therefore, a clear policy was emerging in Pakistan of treating the nuclear program as an instrument of national power and not as a means of altering the international balance in favour of Islamic states.
The clear distinction between the national and religious dimensions of Pakistan's nuclear program continued as Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif took turns in ruling the country. Both of them avoided describing Pakistan's nuclear program as an Islamic program.
After Pakistan's nuclear explosion in May 1986, references were again made to the Islamic nature of Pakistan's nuclear program.
Mohan Malik, Professor at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, said:
"Prior to September 11, General Musharraf reached an informal understanding on sharing nuclear technology with Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. In return for liberal financial assistance from Riyadh, Islamabad was expected to provide medium-range solid-fuelled Chinese M-IIs or Ghauri missiles which would have replaced 30 Dong Feng-3 medium-range ballistic missiles that Saudi Arabia had bought from China in 1988, and were nearing the end of their operational life."
Then Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan admitted that he had transferred nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. The Islamists in Pakistan consider Khan a national hero.
Clearly, there exists a wide gulf between the interests and perspectives of state and anti-state actors, and this is what makes nuclear deterrence in South Asia unstable.
The prospect of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists has made President Bush lean heavily on Islamabad.
The government of Pakistan has now decided to make necessary legislation to prevent any transfer of nuclear technology. In addition, it has renewed its energies on running down al Qaeda.
Pakistan's laws on terrorism and extremist groups remain opaque. While the Government claims to be tackling terrorism, it has taken no substantial steps towards restricting the extremism that permeates parts of society.
Indeed, some argue that President Musharraf is following the pattern of the country's previous military rulers in co-opting religious extremists to support his Government's agenda and to neutralise his secular political opposition.
Whatever measures have so far been taken against extremism have been largely cosmetic to ease international pressure.