ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — 'It's the call of jihad [holy war] to save Pakistan," said cab driver Hakim Khan as he scrawled a slogan on a cloth banner for a rally today organized by Jamaat-i-Islami, an Islamic fundamentalist party.
"We must show our nuclear might," the sign read, painted in bright red and blue.
The Jamaat's belligerence is hardly an encouraging sign for US efforts at urging Pakistan not to carry out its first nuclear test in response to the five tests conducted by rival India last week. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Wednesday again urged Pakistan to show restraint. In an effort to calm security fears that have spread across the country, Ms. Albright said the Clinton administration would work hard with Congress "to respond to Pakistan's economic and security concerns."
In recent days, US officials have said Washington may consider delivering the 28 F-16 fighter planes that Pakistan paid for but never received in 1990 because of sanctions from the Pressler amendment, which barred assistance to countries believed capable of producing nuclear weapons.
Other Western countries and Japan have joined Washington, urging against a test, which they say is likely to escalate an arms race across south Asia.
But that message is making little difference in Pakistan, where a growing number of critics want Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to order the test. The rally, planned to take place in Rawalpindi, a suburb of Islamabad, is meant to add to the pressure.
Analysts say that Mr. Sharif is increasingly under pressure from domestic lobbies, which has made it difficult for him to concede ground to the US.
"I don't deny that there are convincing arguments against Pakistan going nuclear," says Khalid Mahmud, senior policy analyst at Islamabad's Institute of Regional Studies, a government-funded think tank that conducts research on India. But "if they do not use the nuclear option, the political fallout will be severe," he added.
Many businessmen are advising the government to think of the devastating effect increased sanctions would have on the economy, should Pakistan go forward with the test. Economists say Pakistan needs at least $3 billion in World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans in the next 12 months to meet its budget deficit - loans the US would likely vote against. Pakistan's share prices fell to a 55-month low this week, as panic gripped investors.
But strategy analysts led by the country's hawks have demanded swift action. Many are convinced that Pakistan's security interests would be better served by conducting a nuclear test, even if economic chaos follows. They argue that a nuclear test would restore security, giving Pakistan the opportunity to demonstrate that it's capable of meeting the nuclear threat from India. The two have fought three wars in the past 51 years, and many analysts say the possibility of a fourth cannot be overruled, given the large militaries of both countries.
"Pakistan faces many economic difficulties. A nuclear test may add to our hardships," said retired Gen. Khalid Mahmud Arif on Thursday. "Against this temporary economic loss, Pakistan would have achieved a permanent gain [achieving parity with India]."
Speaking about offers of aid from Washington, General Arif said, "We might get some military lollipops, some economic lollipops." But it's a choice of now or never for Pakistan, he added. If it conducted a nuclear test after international outcry over India's tests ends, the "sanctions next time will be far, far harder."