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Pakistan's Next Move: a Nuclear One?

By Farhan Bokhari / May 13, 1998



ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN

Predominantly Muslim Pakistan has a message for largely Hindu India: We can match your nuclear threat.

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India's underground tests of three nuclear devices on Monday has put a world spotlight on Pakistan to see if it might respond with a nuclear test of its own and set off a cold war in South Asia.

The two neighbors have fought three wars since they were carved out of British colonial India in 1947. Today, Islamabad's half-a-million strong military is mostly concentrated on its borders with India.

Several Western nations have urged Pakistan to use restraint following Monday's tests. But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said "Pakistan has the right to take any steps which are essential for Pakistan's security." And yesterday, Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan said Pakistan has the technical capability to match any "threats," all but confirming what the West has long suspected: Pakistan can make atomic weapons.

Independent analysts are split on the country's next move.

Murtaza Pooya, former chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, said, "We have to come out and achieve a certified nuclear status. The price is going to be very, very heavy but we have to be prepared to pay that."

But Ikram Sehgal, a newspaper columnist on defense affairs, responded by saying, "Pakistan gains a lot more by showing restraint at this difficult moment. If it follows India, it falls into Delhi's trap."

Western diplomats, however, say they expect Mr. Sharif's response to fall short of actually exploding a nuclear device. "Public opinion here will demand that the country stand up to India. International opinion will want it to restrain itself. The result will probably lie somewhere in the middle," said a European diplomat.

Pakistan denies Western charges that it has the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Officially, the country says that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes such as research.

Some analysts say the government's reaction would be driven by other countries' actions to punish India.

Officials are watching carefully to see if President Clinton calls off a visit to India and Pakistan planned for later this year. "If he calls it off as a sign of displeasure over India, Pakistan's public sentiment may be pacified somewhat," said a government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But if it's business as usual, Pakistani public opinion will increasingly demand a tough response."