As I drove to work at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC, where I was posted as Deputy Chief of Mission, early on the morning of 11 May 1998, there was a news flash on the car radio that India had conducted 3 nuclear tests. (Two days later on 13 May it conducted 2 more tests). My first reaction was not of surprise or alarm but of satisfaction. That was for good reason.
Since my arrival in Washington four years earlier, Pakistan had been repeatedly targeted by the US administration, Congress, media and think-tanks for its nuclear programme. We had been in American cross-hairs for allegedly acquiring maraging steal, ring magnets and M-11 missiles from China. We were also accused of preparing our nuclear test sites for a detonation. Though the Brown amendment had removed barriers to economic assistance a few years earlier, the military aspects of the all encompassing Pressler sanctions continued, denying Pakistan F-16 aircraft and other military equipment for which Pakistan had already paid.
While continuing with this singular pre-occupation with Pakistan on the nuclear issue, the US chose to be blind-sided by the developments taking place in India. Earlier in 1998, the BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee had formed a coalition government and immediately reiterated its intentions of making India a nuclear power. I vividly recall a think tank event in which the newly appointed US ambassador to India, Frank Wisner, waxed eloquent about the growing opportunities for the “World’s two largest democracies” to become friends and allies. Wisner was even excited that the newly installed McDonald’s franchise in India had come up with the “Maharaja Burger” as a precursor of other Indian bounties for Corporate America. Wisner only mentioned Vajpayee’s position on the nuclear issue in response to my question and his answer was that the Indians know the cost of nuclear testing and would not risk antagonizing the US. As Ambassador to India, Wisner was obviously out of his depth.
The Clinton administration was clearly being misled by the likes of Wisner and other Indophiles in the US system. No wonder then that the State Department dismissed as Pakistani paranoia the letter sent by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Clinton (as also to other P-5 leaders), conveying our concerns about Indian preparations for nuclear tests. Our assessment was based on credible intelligence – unusual activity near the Pokhran test site, change in railway schedules in Rajasthan where Pokhran is located; movement of military vehicles and personnel among other developments taking place in plain sight. But American intelligence, even their satellites missed all this. Perhaps they were not even interested in looking.
So, the initial Indian tests caught the Americans by surprise. According to an American diplomat, Secretary of State Albright was holding a meeting on President Clinton’s forthcoming “celebratory visit” to India, when she was informed of the tests. Reportedly she was rendered speech-less. Despite the resultant fulminations and pleadings from their American friends, the Indians carried out additional two nuclear tests on 13 May – a slap in the face of the Clinton administration.
The Indian tests dramatically changed Pakistan’s security paradigm. The emergent dangers were being articulated by Indian leaders on a daily basis, threatening dire consequences for Pakistan. But, true to form, the American focus quickly shifted to prevent Pakistan from testing. In the same breath that Clinton criticized India for its tests, he asked Pakistan “not to follow suit”. A high powered delegation was also sent to Islamabad where they received a well deserved earful. Without Congressional or even Presidential authority to make any meaningful offer of support in return for Pakistan’s pledge not to test, Deputy Secretary Talbott returned from Islamabad just as he had gone there-empty- handed.
Meanwhile in Washington, I was summoned by acting National Security Advisor James Stienberg (Ambassador Khokhar was in Islamabad for consultations), whose long winded pitch essentially offered release of Pakistan’s F-16 aircraft and other withheld military equipment in return for Pakistan’s commitment not to test. While I undertook to convey this offer, I expressed my personal opinion that the US was trying to bribe us with what already belonged to us. State Department officials, instead of recognizing Pakistan’s security concerns or acknowledging their failure to prevent the Indian tests, gave us read-outs of the dire consequences that would confront Pakistan due to American nuclear sanctions if we tested. We told them that there could be no price for Pakistan’s security.
American think tank heads also pitched in – Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon suggested that the US could ask China to enter into a defence pact with Pakistan while Gary Milholin of the Wisconsin Arms Control Project, proposed a US facilitated “Cold Test”. To the former my answer was that Pakistan did not need America’s help to sign a defence pact with China if we wanted one; to the latter that only a real test would be a demonstration of our technical and strategic capabilities.
Within days there were also reports that Israeli war planes were in India to jointly attack Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. The Americans vehemently denied these reports after talking to the Israelis. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that for Pakistan, Israeli hostility to its nuclear programme could not be ignored.
After thorough and protracted deliberations, taking account of all the pros and cons of testing, including the impact of sanctions, Pakistan conducted its six nuclear tests on 28 and 30 May. The over-riding rationale was and remains maintaining a credible deterrence against India. Nothing less than our tests could have ensured this.
From our perspective in Washington, all promises of support in return for not testing, were fickle and unreliable. Also, as subsequent years have demonstrated, it would be only a matter of time before the Americans reverted back to their policy of courting India as a counter-weight to China and to benefit from economic opportunities in India. As such, we recommended that Pakistan should not forgo the opportunity of becoming a nuclear power in the larger and long term security interests of the country. In retrospect, as we observe the twentieth anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear tests, the country’s unanimous decision has proved to be correct.
Ambassador Zamir Akram (Retired) has served as the Pakistan Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organizations.