This admission by Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf late last year epitomizes the international fears that, if let on their own, both south Asian nations could plunge the region into a nuclear confrontation.

What foreign leaders and observers had interpreted as veiled threats by Musharraf had come when tensions between the two neighbours ratcheted up earlier after a deadly attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, with New Delhi amassing tens of thousands of troops on India’s borders.

It blamed the deadly assault on Kashmiri separatists backed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The resulting tensions prompted US and Britain to try to bring the nuclear neighbours back from the brink of war.

The United States was particularly anxious to avoid an Indian-Pakistani war at a time when it depended heavily on the latter’s support in its “fight against terrorism”. Top US diplomats were dispatched to the region to neutralise the threat of a nuclear conflagration.

The South Asian neighbours had exploded tit-for-tat underground nuclear tests in 1998.  Worldwide condemnation and severe economic sanctions followed and continued until Washington needed Islamabad’s active help in its war on al-Qaida after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Origins of conflict

Kashmir dispute is a major point
of contention

Pakistan and India share a 2880km border, a section of which is the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir. They have fought two wars over the region. A third war was fought over the then East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in December 1971.

However, the simmering Kashmir dispute continues to overshadow peace and development in the region.

As a legacy of the partition of the subcontinent when Pakistan was created in 1947, the clash over Kashmir has been instrumental in the nuclearisation of both countries.

It began when India tested a nuclear device in 1974 and Pakistan immediately sought to catch up by creating a new organization in 1976 – the Kahutta Research Laboratories (KRL) – about 50km east of the capital Islamabad.

By 1986, Pakistan had produced its first nuclear weapon, thanks to KRL’s success at the hardest part of bomb building: producing fissile material. Islamabad today is believed to have 30 to 60 nuclear weapons.

Yet, a veil of ambiguity hung over this capability until Pakistan demonstrated its nuclear might in the craggy hills of Chaghi in the southwestern Balochistan province.

Since then, Pakistan insists its nuclear programme is a safeguard for national security, particularly against an enemy (India) ten times its size in conventional arms, and has refused to subject the uranium-enrichment KRL facility to international inspections.

Pressure and accusations

Of late, even Pakistani analysts have begun questioning the rationale.

Pakistan's Ghauri missile is capable
of carrying nuclear warheads and
has a range of 1500 km

“It is senseless for Pakistan to focus primarily on India and link its nuclear deterrence to the eastern neighbour,” says Dr Aisha Siddiqa, who also writes for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

"It would be an absolute waste if the nuclear capability was to be tied down to responding to India and keeping bilateral relations hostage to it," said Siddiqa.

However, Islamabad’s nuclear programme worries others as well.

US intelligence sources have been accusing it of exchanging nuclear expertise with North Korea to acquire Nodong ballistic missiles and of providing technical assistance to Iran. Moreover, after 9/11, Pakistan came under microscopic scrutiny by US and British defence officials.

“In June 2002, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard L Armitage all but named Dr Abd al-Qadir Khan ( the founder of KRL)  when he expressed concern that "people who were employed by KRL  and have retired" might be spreading nuclear technology to North Korea,” a Los Angeles Special report said early this year.

Part of the problem was the defection to the US of two Chinese scientists. American officials claimed that the scientists, as members of one of China’s nuclear establishments, had worked at the KRL and therefore became privy to the details of Pakistan's nuclear programmes.

"The past is the past. I am more concerned about what is going on now. We have a new relationship with Pakistan," the paper quoted Armitage as saying.

Pakistan denies giving nuclear assistance to other countries and insists that the nuclear technology is too expensive to share with others.

New approach needed

 "The US is no longer pushing for a roll back of Pakistan’s nuclear programme but for a long-term relationship to grow out of the post-9/11 scenario”

Michael Krepon
Author

Michael Krepon, the American author of the book Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense and the Nuclear Future, agrees that the new relationship dictates a different US approach.

 "The US is no longer pushing for a roll back of Pakistan’s nuclear programme but for a long-term relationship to grow out of the post-9/11 scenario. Promises will have to be kept,” he says.

Pursuit for nuclear weapons also invited economic sanctions by the United States in 1990, which were eventually lifted in the aftermath of the “war against terrorism.”

Aspersions on Pakistan’s alleged cooperation with Iran, however, continue to fly around.

 “Those who speak of Pakistan’s nuclear cooperation with Iran are ignorant of the ground realities in the region,” said a senior Japanese diplomat in Islamabad in reference to the soured relations between Pakistan and Iran.

No war since ‘71

Despite the western media campaigns, Dr Khan remained proud of his achievements while denying any exchanges of expertise or materials with the North Koreans or the Iranians.

"With the help of our scientists and components acquired through the open markets in the west we  built a weapon of peace; there has not  been a war with India since 1971,” Dr Khan told this scribe in an interview in April 2000, soon after KRL successfully test-fired the medium-range Ghouri ballistic missile.

"If making nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of safeguarding the existence, independence and sovereignty of your country could be termed madness or fanaticism, there are many thousands in other countries who should be awarded even bigger titles,” Khan had said.

Peace activist sceptical

"With the help of our scientists and components acquired through the open markets in the west we  built a weapon of peace; there has not  been a war with India since 1971”

Abd al-Qadir Khan
Founder of KRL nuclear facility

To allay western fears that nuclear weapons might fall in the hands of "fundamentalists", President Pervez Musharraf established a Nuclear Command and Control Authority (NCCA) in February 2000. It comprises the ministers for defence, foreign affairs and the interior as well as representatives of all armed forces. Scientists from KRL and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) are also members of the NCCA.

Dr AH Nayyar, a physics professor at Islamabad's prime Quaid-i-Azam University and a peace activist is sceptical.

"It is not clear to me if this has reduced chances of an accidental launch, or if it is a jittery response to an activity across the border," Nayyar said. Ideally, as a peace activist, Nayyar would love to see both India and Pakistan abandon nuclear weapons altogether.

"As long as these (arms) remain in South Asia, the collective life here will also remain in peril."