Either Eat Grass or Confront the Bomb – There Is Room for Middle Ground

It’s amazing how academia (pretty much like any field) contains its share of pessimists and optimists who manage to polarize opinion. The caveat that needs to be understood, however, is from where the pessimism or optimism stems; whether it is Pervez Hoodbhoy’s proclivity towards nuclear abolition when issues of security in South Asia are raised, or advocacy directed towards nuclear weapons’ being crucial for the survival of a state. Regardless of how weak, crippled, or dilapidated the state is internally, such narratives should be open to debate. Factual questioning needs to take place with prudence.

Brig. Feroz Hassan Khan’s review (available here, page 15) of Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out, is an example of a balanced analysis of the assertions made by scientists who hail from a school of thought that is obsessed with nuclear abolition. Don’t get me wrong—Khan has also appreciated insights based on his own expertise in the field. There are, however, a few salient reasons as to why I consider this review to be a must read for those who often buy into to narratives without questioning them.

First, the assertion that Pervez Hoodbhoy’s claims are rooted in an intellectual tradition that favors banning the bomb and promoting a peaceful world is a valid one, especially when one analyzes the history of the nuclear weapons programs of both India and Pakistan. The underlying motivations for building weapons programs were rooted in animosity, hostility, and suspicion of regional rivals. India’s need to deter China and Pakistan’s need to deter India have gone hand in hand. Understanding the perceived need to develop a credible deterrent to offset India’s conventional superiority is essential to understanding Pakistan’s nuclear program; especially as Pakistan witnessed a devastating loss of territory and economic clout during the 1971 war. In a nutshell, Pakistan would not be better off without nuclear weapons given the historical context in which it sought to develop them – which is supported by Kenneth Waltz’s neorealist theory of the nuclear weapons having a “more the merrier” effect. The nuclear program has been at the vanguard of ensuring Pakistan’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty, and therefore should not be viewed as an illegitimate source of power that ought to be abolished. Such assertions border on the preposterous, regardless of from where they come.

Secondly, the Pakistan military establishment is a massive canvass that has harbored an array of ideologies, thought processes, and decision-making policies, all of which have inevitably had a bearing on the nation’s history and progress. While the military has had its share of shortcomings, the contributions made by the institution in guaranteeing the safety of weapons (for example, Personnel Reliability Programs being enforced and implemented) are to the Strategic Plans Division’s (SPD) credit – a fact which Khan acknowledges. This makes the constant berating of the military’s role on the part of Hoodbhoy and Mian open to skepticism and questioning. If one can be blunt, such assertions actually toe the line of Christine Fair’s claims that all the problems of South Asia emanate from an institution which continues to be dogmatic, indoctrinated, and constantly obsessed with conquering New Delhi. One really needs to be fair, and not necessarily “Fair,” when analyzing Pakistan.


The real challenge in Pakistan is what mandates the most amount of attention: massive poverty, poor governance, and terrorism. It is more important to address these challenges as compared to questioning the utility of nuclear weapons for both India and Pakistan. Nuclear weapons will always have deterrence value, regardless of what abolitionists claim. As much as Pakistan’s nukes were and continue to be a source of national pride, in modern times, peaceful cooperation and economic development (domestic development – not reliance on the Gulf for petrodollars!) are areas which mandate a considerable amount of attention. A colleague of mine, Masood Mirza, recently highlighted this fact in a South Asian Voices post titled “Changing the Mindset.” It is also important to note that the utility of nuclear weapons will continue, borne by the fact that neither country has surpassed the nuclear threshold despite fighting four wars. The Kargil episode is, in particular, a classic example of the stability-instability paradox.

To sum up, one needs to strike a balance and not accept narratives as they come as reality. This review clearly shows that Brig. Feroz Hassan Khan, who was formerly a Director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs within the Strategic Plans Division, makes a valid point that while Pakistan can be castigated for its shortcomings, credit needs to be given where it is due.


Image: Spencer Platt-Getty Images News, Getty

Posted in , Books, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Research

Hamzah Rifaat

Hamzah Rifaat is an anchor for Policy Beats, a current affairs and policy oriented web talk show series. He has over four years of broadcasting experience. He is a gold medalist with a Master of Philosophy degree in the discipline of peace and conflict studies from the National Defense University in Islamabad. He holds a diploma in World Affairs and Professional Diplomacy from the Bandaranaike Diplomatic Training Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was a freelance writer and blogger for the Friday Times and received a CRDF scholarship to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where he studied nonproliferation and terrorism studies at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He was also a Graduate Editorial Assistant for Women's International Perspective, a global source for women's perspectives, based in Monterey. He has also represented Pakistan as a member of the CTBTO Youth Initiative 2016. His writings encompass political and internal security issues in Pakistan and he regularly contributes for The Diplomat Magazine. Hamzah is a former SAV Visiting Fellow (January 2016).

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8 thoughts on “Either Eat Grass or Confront the Bomb – There Is Room for Middle Ground

  1. Well argued piece, Hamza. The problem is with those who project as if nuclear weapons are a panacea for all the evils that afflict a society, which is necessarily not the case.

  2. This is the dilemma that Pakistani nation or the nationals usually found to be intermingling the defense sector with that of other social sector. But the fact is defense is just a part of the whole compound. As far as the utilization of the nuclear power is concerned then people must be thankful of the pioneers of the very technology who made the country to protect its sovereignty and to maintain its deterrence in response to India’s aggressions and violent postures towards Pakistan. If the technology or the capability would have not be acquired then probably Pakistan would have not been till now a surviving country on the global map.

  3. Excellent post, Hamza. I would argue neither nuclear optimists nor nuclear pessimists, from both India and Pakistan, are serving any national interest of their respective countries. There is need to
    understand peculiar “strategic idiosyncrasies” and “organizational pathologies” in the context of nuclear arms competition between India and Pakistan. Nuclear abolitionism is not the option at all and “more may be better” could strengthen thinking about unthinkable. So, the best possible way is middle ground between optimism and pessimism. There is dire and urgent need for further nuclear CBMs and nuclear risk reduction measures in South Asia. Down the road they may lead towards arms control and disarmament between both the countries. But, the trick lies in the hands of Indians as the ball is in their court. They need to play fairly, which is not the case up-till now, unfortunately.

  4. If we talk about the stability-instability paradox than the nuclear parity is benefiting Pakistan. Pakistan’s main objective in nuclear deterrence has been qualitative nuclear weapons instead of quantity. It has taken limited measures to lower the threshold that has provoked Indian frustration of greed for more conventional arms along with deploying more than 70% of its military on Pakistani borders.

  5. Hamzah – you make good points, especially regarding the need for debate on nuclear issues and narratives in both India and Pakistan. I would second Sadiq’s comments on nuclear optimists vs. pessimists. Confidence-building and nuclear risk reduction measures are urgent next-steps. Those in the middle ground can push for these steps.

  6. Thank you everyone. Dare I be bold enough to claim that:

    ‘…. for what is middle ground, but a ‘noodle’ for those who don’t have a stake in it’. ( Not a Chinese Noodle btw, Dont want Nie Rongzhen to turn in this grave!!! :)

  7. I agree with Sadiq and Julia on the need for Confidence Building and Risk Reduction measures between India and Pakistan, however as Sadiq stated here earlier it is not possible when New Delhi has laid its strategic priorities elsewhere. Here in South Asia, even the continuity and sustainability of a peace process is in limbo, for reasons variously stated, (I wouldn’t comment on them here). Any unilateral measures by Pakistan, one feels, wouldn’t garner much attention, in the current environment.
    On the issue of ‘Strategic Parity’, in Cold War, arms control was sought as a means when both US and USSR had achieved so to say, ‘strategic parity’ and then there was an understanding of limiting the strategic defensive technologies, (in SALT-I), so that they do not undermine deterrence stability.
    The question that comes to mind is can India and Pakistan afford the luxury to follow the same path? Would strategic parity bode positively for arms control? Is it a question of lack of political will or right timing?

  8. ”India’s need to deter China and Pakistan’s need to deter India have gone hand in hand.” This is quite true however please note- while China has claimed large Indian territory & forcibly occupied part of it, India has never done so with Pakistan or any other neighboring country.
    ”Pakistan witnessed a devastating loss of territory and economic clout during the 1971 war. ” Again true but this could have been prevented better by providing democratic rights to east Pakistanis rather than depending on nuclear deterrent. 1971 disaster of Pakistan could not be avoided in spite of full support of nuclear powers – US & China.
    I fully endorse Sadiq’s view ” There is dire and urgent need for further nuclear CBMs and nuclear risk reduction measures in South Asia” even though total abolition of Nuclear weapons is unrealistic. For this to happen, the Civilian government must have full control over Military establishment (& fanatics).

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