May 29, 1998
The Rediff Interview with Zia Mian
'Each crisis from now on will have a nuclear edge'
Zia Mian, the Pakistan-born lecturer of Public and
International Affairs at Princeton University, has made
the institutional, technological, and political
motivations of nuclear power and nuclear weapons in
South Asia his speciality. In his emailed reponses to
Assistant Editor P Rajendran's questionnaire, he
discusses Pakistan's nuclear tests on Thursday.
The history of the nuclear age teaches that there is no
such thing as a nuclear balance. The public fear that
nuclear weapons produce, the politics that is built on
this fear, and the infrastructure of weapon-scientists
and armed forces who produce and prepare to use the
weapons, combine to prevent a balance ever being
reached. Instead, there is the erratic, often psychotic,
search for balance. It was this that led to the arsenals
of the US and Soviet Union not becoming balanced when
both had a few simple atom bombs, but kept them growing
in size and destructiveness.
This is a lesson we should have learned for ourselves in
South Asia in recent years. For decades, it was claimed
that the "nuclear option" was a deterrent. This has
finally gave way to the argument that a real deterrent
needs tested weapons. Soon this will give to the
argument that only deployed weapons are a deterrent.
This, in time, will give way to to the claim that a real
deterrent needs tested, deployed weapons, on
hair-trigger alert for use in a first strike, along with
nuclear weapons that can survive a nuclear attack and be
used to retaliate. This is after all the trajectory that
all nuclear weapons states with nuclear armed "enemies"
The only other feature of deterrence worth mentioning is
that during the decades of the "nuclear option" there
was no open war between India and Pakistan, instead
there was covert war. This is exactly what happened in
the Third World during the Cold War, when the US and
USSR fought each other in one country after another
using whoever they could. There is no reason to believe
that once Indian and Pakistani armed forces adjust to
the other having tested and even deployed nuclear
weapons they will not revert to proxy war.
As for whether nuclear weapons can act as a deterrent
and prevent war, General George Lee Butler, who until a
few years ago actually commanded all of the United
States's strategic nuclear weapons has said the world
"survived the Cuban missile crisis no thanks to
deterrence, but only by the grace of God."
The only certain to prevent nuclear war is to have no
nuclear weapons. the only certain way to prevent war is
to make peace.
How does Pakistan's ability to make bombs compare with
India's? Is it capable of making a thermonuclear bomb
What is the value in comparing abilities to kill people
in great numbers? It is sickening enough to think of a
state wanting to have nuclear weapons. No one would
dream of asking the same question if asked in a slightly
different way, namely, which is technologically more
advanced, Pakistan's ability to murder Indian children
or India's ability to murder Pakistani children?
Given that nuclear technology has always and everywhere
numbed, if not killed, moral sensibilities, it is
sufficient to say that a state's capability to make
nuclear weapons and even thermonuclear weapons is
determined in significant measure by how hard it wants
to make them. By starving its people of financial and
human resources and directing them to a weapons
programme a state can do almost anything. One need only
look for instance at North Korea. So, while it is
plausible that at present Pakistan may not have a viable
thermonuclear weapon designed and ready to test this is
not to say that it cannot do so in the foreseeable
It has clearly not taken India's claim
that it sees
China as a threat at face value. Do you think Pakistan
is justified in its belief, if not in conducting tests?
Threats are by and large as real and as serious as the
elite of a state wants them to be. Threats are
constructed politically from the material offered up by
geography, history, culture and economy and are used for
all kinds of domestic reasons. Many national identities
have been built on a difference presented as a "threat,"
many an army has grown fat on big enemies, many a
politician has come to power on the back of hate and
There is no doubt that Pakistan's leaders, and the elite
in general, do not see India except in relation to
themselves. This has in part defined the last fifty
years in the relationship between India and Pakistan.
Given this, it is not surprising that Pakistani policy
makers cannot imagine the world as seen through the eyes
of Indian policy makers. But even if India's leaders
have in the past looked at a broader canvas, the coming
to power of the BJP has served to convince Pakistan's
elite that the Indian government's political focus will
now be shaped by communalism and thus oriented towards
As for a Chinese threat to India, it is hard to see what
could be a basis for armed conflict, and beyond that
nuclear conflict. The border dispute has been around for
over three decades and was starting to be open for
negotiation in recent years. China was more or less
happy with the way the border was, and was not the party
to the dispute that wanted to change things. It did not
need to incite a war. Moreover, it is hardly a vital
area that would require a resort to nuclear weapons.
This was a judgment that has been shared by all previous
It is also worth mentioning that the little polling data
that exists about the Indian elite thinking about
nuclear weapons suggests many more of them support the
further development of Indian nuclear weapons as a
response to Pakistan's nuclear weapons than to China's.
Pakistan's ambassador to the US Riaz Khokkar
CNN that Pakistan would not conduct the bomb. Today,
Pakistan Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan said his
country's cold war allies had betrayed it. Since
negotiations were on with Pakistan demanding more than
the F-16s they'd already bought anyway, what could be
the possible import of his statement?
One lesson of recent weeks is to not believe a word
diplomats and government spokesmen from South Asia say
about nuclear weapons, and what is being planned. It
would seem that Pakistan has borrowed a leaf out of the
BJP's book and began preparations to test some time ago
and lied systematically as to their intentions. Nawaz
Sharief's address to the nation contained little
evidence of reluctance about the decision to test. He
said it was "an auspicious day."
The negotiations with the Americans may well have been
little more than Pakistan trying to find out what its
co-operation on nuclear weapons was worth. It is
important to remember that there will have to be an end
to this crisis sooner or later and that much of what has
happened and will happen is oriented towards creating
positions the parties involved may be able to take when
India claims it conducted its tests partly to gather
data for its super computers. Do you think Pakistan can
collect such information? Does it have the computing
Collecting information from a nuclear test is a
difficult task if the aim to is to collect
scientifically useful information about the details of
the weapons and the the explosion. Testing several
weapons at a time as both India and Pakistan have done
complicates this. If, however, the aim is simply to test
a computer model that gives a reliable estimate of the
yield of a weapon then the data is easier to collect.
Any group of nuclear weapon scientists who can build a
bomb can collect such data.
It is easy to overstate the importance of super
computers in nuclear weapons design. Almost all nuclear
weapons were designed before super computers were
invented. Ordinary computers can do the calculations, it
just takes longer. Super computers create the capability
to be far more flexible to designing in new kinds of
weapons (i e significantly different from those that
have been tested) and understanding how they might work
and creating "virtual prototypes" that can be subject to
"virtual testing." This is the kind of programme that
only an enormously powerful, over-funded, nuclear
weapons complex that wants to keep designing new weapons
would bother with.
Pakistan does not have the kind of computing power or
experience to undertake such a progarmme. While India
has more computing resources than Pakistan, it is
unlikely that India could mount the kind of programme
being set up in the US. The US programme is being built
on the experience and data collected from over 1,000
There are claims that the economic backlash on Pakistan
will be worse than that on India? Since Pakistan knew
this, was it cutting its nose to spite its face?
There is little reason to believe that after having
ignored the poverty of Pakistan's people for 50 years,
its leaders would suddenly start to worry about it now.
It has been like this from the very beginning. In the
very first budget in Pakistan for 1947-1948, the
government allocated 65.2% of all government expenditure
to the military. In the following year this rose to
71.3%, and in 1949 it was 73.3%. It did not fall below
50% really until the early 1970s. That was to pay for
Zulfikar Bhutto told Pakistan in 1965 that the country
would have to eat grass to get the bomb. Nawaz Sharief
has the bomb, the poor will eat grass.
Will tension in the area reach a plateau over time with
these tests? Or is it likely that Iran will follow, then
Iraq? How do you expect power equations in the region to
There is no reason to believe that the tension will
reach a plateau. Each crisis from now on will have a
nuclear edge. The danger of something going wrong will
be very great. It will require massive public
mobilisation against nuclear weapons and for some kind
of détente to create the space for new leaders to start
to back away from the edge of the nuclear abyss we now
find ourselves on.
Iran is unlikely to follow a nuclear weapons path. It is
only the Americans and Israelis that are obsessed with
this, and that is based on little more than their
obsession with getting even for the overthrow of the
Shah and maintaining Israeli military domination in the
area. Iraq has been almost destroyed by the American
determination to root out every trace of anything even
remotely useful for nuclear weapons in that country.
It is here that American hypocrisy on nuclear weapons is
at its most outrageous. They are screaming about Iran,
while starving the children of Iraq for their leader's
ambition to build nuclear weapons, and yet feed the
Israeli military machine, which has nuclear weapons,
with over $ 1 billion of aid a year.
How about China? Could it play a role in defusing
tension between the two countries, or would it
China's role will be determined as much by what it would
like to do, as by what India and Pakistan will let it.
It is hard to see a BJP government wanting China to come
in as a mediator, especially since it has cited China's
role in South Asia as responsible for inducing the
Defusing the tension will require immediate steps by
India and Pakistan. This could include declarations to
carry out no more nuclear tests and not to deploy
nuclear weapons, grounding all military aircraft for a
fixed period and restricting all troops to their bases.
This could be accompanied by an invitation to the UN
secretary general to visit both countries immediately
and act as a mediator who could arrange a meeting of the
two prime ministers with their respective military
chiefs to discuss how to calm things down further.
Then it will be time to start talking about disarmament,
in South Asia and globally with seriousness and honesty.
At this stage it will become clear whether India and
Pakistan will behave like all the other nuclear weapons
states, who once having got their weapons refuse to talk
about getting rid of them. If this happens, then it will
be up to the people of India and Pakistan together to
push forward the agenda of abolishing nuclear weapons
and free themselves from the horrors of living in