Pakistan's nuclear albatross

Pete Souza/White House

President Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan, at Blair House in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • Few things inspire as much solidarity in #Pakistan as its beloved nuke program

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  • It's time for Pakistanis to start questioning the conventional wisdom that nukes are among #Pakistan's greatest assets

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  • Pakistan among fastest growing nuclear arsenals in the world

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Few things inspire as much solidarity in Pakistan as its beloved nuclear weapons program. Monuments marking the 1998 nuclear tests dot the country, and the anniversary of those tests is celebrated as Youm-e-Takbeer, or Day of Exaltation.

You would be hard pressed to find a national hero who approaches the stature of Abdul Qadeer Khan (more commonly known as A.Q. Khan), metallurgist and father of the Pakistani bomb. In his memoirs, former President Pervez Musharraf describes how the imperative to protect Pakistan's "strategic assets" from possible U.S. reprisals prompted his (ostensible) turn against Islamabad's protégés in the Taliban after 9/11.

But maybe it's time for Pakistanis to start questioning the conventional wisdom that nukes are among the country's greatest assets. Simply put, without the burden of nuclear weapons, Pakistan would almost certainly be richer, more democratic and better regarded in the community of nations. Arguably it would be safer, too.

Such a line of thinking at first might seem like an impossible sell, given the plausible arguments Pakistanis can muster for why they need the bomb. Nuclear weapons offer Pakistan insurance against invasion from arch-enemy India, which enjoys otherwise overwhelming military, demographic and economic advantages.

"Most of all, Pakistan's nukes have hurt the country by allowing its generals to prioritize adventurism over development."--Sadanand Dhume

Indeed, the nuclear umbrella gives Pakistan cover to inflict lower-level violence upon India. If not for Islamabad's nuclear weapons, New Delhi would almost certainly have responded militarily to the 2001 terrorist attack on India's parliament and the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Nuclear weapons have also apparently boosted Pakistan's stature on the global stage. Measured by population, human development or per capita income, Pakistan most closely resembles its fraternal twin Bangladesh. But U.S. presidential candidates and members of Congress don't prep for questions about Bangladesh. Pakistan also garners more attention than other nonnuclear terrorist safe havens such as Somalia or Yemen.

Though these pro-bomb arguments may not be irrational, they nonetheless share a common flaw. They overestimate the nuclear program's benefit to Pakistan, and ignore its significant opportunity cost.

To begin with, Islamabad grossly exaggerates the military threat from New Delhi. True, India helped dismember Pakistan by assisting in the birth of Bangladesh. But about 1,100 miles of Indian territory separated then-Pakistan's western and eastern halves, and the main determinant of Bangladeshi independence was not Indian armor but the determination of Bengali-speaking Bangladeshis not to be treated as second-class citizens by their Urdu and Punjabi speaking compatriots.

Today's Pakistan, much more geographically coherent and culturally compact, faces no such threat. More to the point, nobody of any consequence in India has the faintest desire to rule over Pakistan, or to absorb 180 million potentially hostile Muslims into India's already turbulent democracy. So in effect, Pakistan compromises its own safety by putting nukes in such close proximity to the jihadists inside its borders, without any obvious security gains so far as relations with India are concerned.

As for stature, Pakistan's nuclear program certainly gives it prominence--but for all the wrong reasons. Earlier this month, evidence emerged that the International Atomic Energy Agency was investigating the A.Q. Khan network for suspected proliferation of nuclear technology to Syria. Add that to the list of troubling customers--Iran, Libya and North Korea--of the notorious nuclear black market. The international community whose respect Islamabad craves views Pakistan as a major problem, not a peer to be taken seriously as an equal.

In a similar vein, Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly point out the danger of Pakistan's nukes falling into jihadist hands. Supposedly worried about secret U.S. plans to snatch Pakistan's weapons, the Pakistani army has allegedly taken to transporting them in lightly guarded vans.

The evident lack of responsible stewardship--along with jihadist plots and attacks traced to the country--have almost certainly contributed to making Pakistan one of the three most negatively viewed countries on the planet, according to a BBC survey released earlier this year. (Only Iran and North Korea fared worse.)

All the while, the military's custodianship of the nuclear arsenal buffers it from any pressure to democratize politics. Indeed, foreigners feel compelled to pay court to the military ahead of any civilian alternative.

Most of all, Pakistan's nukes have hurt the country by allowing its generals to prioritize adventurism over development. Pakistan's fast-growing arsenal--currently estimated at upward of 100 warheads--drains already scarce resources. According to Global Zero, an anti-nuclear weapons NGO, Pakistan spent $1.8 billion on its nuclear weapons program last year, about a quarter of total military spending. Thanks in part to this extravagance, Pakistan spends more on its military than on health and education combined.

With the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world--by some estimates Pakistan is on course to overtake Britain as the world's fifth largest nuclear power--the cost of these weapons in an otherwise aid-dependent economy will continue to rise.

As the inheritor of some of the most productive and well-irrigated farmland of British India, and much of its educated Muslim middle class, Pakistan could well have chosen to fulfill its founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah's dream of a progressive and prosperous state. To be sure, the pursuit of nuclear weapons isn't the only mistake made by the country's short-sighted leaders, but it may well turn out to be the worst.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI

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