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Twenty-five years later

As Pakistan prepares to celebrate a quarter century in May this year since its six maiden nuclear tests of 1998, the country’s political, economic and internal direction stands sharply in contrast to its membership of an elite group.

As one of the world’s seven declared nuclear powers (Israel is widely believed to be the eight), Pakistan’s nuclearization was widely celebrated at the time across the country and parts of the Islamic world as a significant game-changer.

Within hours of Pakistan’s nuclear tests, reports filtered in of thanks giving prayers offered as far away as Palestine, Lebanon and other Islamic countries, underlining the significance of that event, well beyond the country’s borders. In brief, the world’s first Islamic country armed with nuclear weapons had arrived.

At home, news of punitive international sanctions reinforced the inevitable promise of an unprecedented belt tightening. Nawaz Sharif’s government, then in his second tenure as prime minister, received praise among hardcore nationalists for moving ahead with the nuclear tests, just three weeks after India’s second series of nuclear tests since 1974.

The pain, notably the freezing of onshore foreign currency accounts and the equivalent payout in rupees at below market rates, was swallowed by many across Pakistan as the inevitable price for the life that the country chose. Even the controversy over some connected to the ruling structure withdrawing large sums of money in foreign currency bank deposits ahead of the tests in time became an almost secondary affair.

But a quarter century later today as Pakistan battles the worst economic crisis in its history surrounded by the government’s self inflicted political turmoil, the future remains murky at best.

And Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s recent public promise to defend Pakistan’s nuclear and missile assets was neither smart nor accurate. The finance minister’s failure to ensure greater economic stability has deeply tarnished his credentials and raised a compelling question: shouldn’t he just focus on his job if he has the capacity to do so?

The Dar-nuclear-missile episode remains a powerful reminder of the discretion that must be exhibited by Pakistan’s key decision-makers on the most vital element of national security – the nuclear programme. While the broad contour of Pakistan’s nuclear assets must remain surrounded by secrecy, defending the programme within the broad parameters of the country’s national objectives remains paramount.

And towards that end, stabilizing Pakistan’s increasingly tarnished political and economic landscapes remains central to the country’s national security imperatives. In other words, increasing disarray on either one or both of those fronts irrespective of Pakistan’s status as a nuclear armed country will only undermine the country’s future.

Following the ill-conceived public statement on this front, it is essential to appreciate the lessons of history. Any student of historical trends only has to refer to the collapse of the former Soviet Union that led to the physical disintegration of the largest empire in history. Yet, Russia – which inherited much of the Soviet might – remains the custodian of Moscow’s nuclear assets.

Meanwhile, North Korea has reportedly posed a recurring threat to global security interests. It would not have been similarly noticed without the fear over its nuclearization. And, last but not the least, Israel’s status as a nuclear power backed by the US gives it an edge over its rivals across the Middle East.

Pakistan’s status as a confirmed and matured nuclear power with a scattered enough programme provides assurances of Islamabad’s strategic edge. Yet, this status alone can not guarantee the country’s stability, without the certainty of politics and a sustainable economy backed by a reformed system of internal governance.

The arrival of Pakistan in the world’s nuclear club was meant to assure peace and stability in a tough neighbourhood, next door to a nuclear foe with whom Islamabad has fought three major wars and many skirmishes.

As India races ahead to increasingly dominate the global economic and markets agenda, Pakistan is increasingly exposed to the danger of being overwhelmed beyond the conventional battlefields. Lifting Pakistan’s outlook for the foreseeable future requires a series of reforms that begin to improve trends across the country’s politics and the economy.

Given the acrimony today surrounding Pakistan’s politics, it is essential for the country to hold parliamentary elections at the earliest to throw up a new leadership which commands the support of a clear majority. Only a stable new government with the support of a cross-section of voters will be adequately equipped to embrace painful and unpopular reforms to pave the way for a long overdue economic recovery.

Unless Pakistan is pushed to undertake unprecedented reforms surrounding the economy, the future simply promises to throw up fast-mounting challenges than the past or the present.

Ultimately, Pakistan’s assets within its nuclear and missile arsenal are here to stay. But stabilizing the country’s political and economic environment is essential to avoid heading into a period of chaos with unpredictable consequences.

Email: farhanbokhari@gmail.com

Farhan Bokhari, "Twenty-five years later," The News. 2023-03-29.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political turmoil , Nuclearization , Economics , Ishaq Dar , Nawaz Sharif , Russia , Pakistan