Nuclear nationalism trumps nuclear safeguards for most Pakistanis. The deteriorating position of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has in recent months dominated American discussion of Pakistan, but the country’s nuclear arsenal is a long-standing concern. The journalist Seymour Hersh has reported that nuclear weapons were assembled and mounted on F-16s for use during confrontations with India in 1989 and 2002. Bruce Reidel, a Clinton administration South Asia specialist on the National Security Council, asserts that weapons were also made ready during the Pakistani incursion at Kargil in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1999. 5
Hersh makes the argument that a military mobilization during which Pakistan’s nuclear components are removed from secure storage, assembled, and deployed on airfields around the country is the moment of greatest risk of a weapon’s being stolen, sold, or voluntarily offered to Islamist terrorists. Yet this frightening scenario has little resonance among Pakistanis, or even Indians. Except for a few anti-nuclear activists, most Pakistanis believe nuclear weapons have enhanced their security. This is largely true in India as well. “Because of the nuclear deterrent, conventional war between the two countries is no longer an option,” said the Indian foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, in an interview in New Delhi.
In Pakistan, both of the two secular national political parties are proud of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Pakistan People’s Party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promised after India tested a “peaceful nuclear device” in 1974 that the country would “eat grass” if it had to for the sake of building a similar weapon. In 1998, his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, offered her bangles to Nawaz Sharif, who, as prime minister, was weighing inducements from the Clinton administration to forgo testing a bomb in response to India’s own successful tests. Bhutto’s gesture impugned Sharif’s masculinity and egged him on to the tests, which he went ahead with despite great pressure from the United States.
“We have earned nuclear capability the hard way and we’re not going to give it up,” said Hamid Gul, who was the Inter-Services Intelligence chief at the end of the Soviet-era war in Afghanistan. “It is not America’s problem.” Gul’s rhetoric may be intemperate, but he was addressing an issue that is more contentious under democratic rule than dictatorship: the equation of Pakistan’s nuclear program with its sovereignty. “On the issue of nuclear weapons there has not been any political party which supports denuclearization and the army certainly does not,” we were told by Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist at Quaid-e- Azam University and Pakistan’s most outspoken nuclear critic.
One sign of Pakistan’s defiance on the nuclear issue has been the heightened visibility, since the arrival of elected government, of the disgraced nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, whom Musharraf put under house arrest in 2004, after international outrage at the discovery of Khan’s sales of uranium enrichment technology to Iran and Libya. In July, the new civilian government allowed Khan to challenge his detention in court. And in a June poll by the International Republican Institute, 67 percent of Pakistani respondents said they would support Khan’s election as president.