Speaking at a political rally in Peshawar on May 14, 2022, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan raised doubts about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the hands of what he called “thieves”— referring to the new regime that replaced him after a Vote of No Confidence (VoNC) in Parliament—and noted, “dropping an atomic bomb would be better than handing the helm to these people.” In a TV interview a few weeks later, on June 1st, Khan brought up nuclear weapons yet again – this time outlining the doomsday scenario that might unfold if the establishment didn’t take the “right decisions.” Khan stated, “Pakistan is going towards a default. If that happens then which institution will be [worst] hit? The army. After it is hit, what concession will be taken from us? Denuclearization.” While the nuclear rhetoric of the statements draws media attention to Khan, the statements themselves further ingrain the military’s assumed role in national security.
Since his ouster, Imran Khan has gone back to his previous role as a political outsider and continued to draw large crowds across Pakistan—claiming a foreign conspiracy behind the VoNC and raising criticism of the military’s role in politics. While the current heated public mood is ripe for debate, Khan’s reluctance to include crucial issues like defense spending and nuclear weapons in his democratic struggle reveals a hole in his narrative. The few statements that Khan has made about nuclear weapons so far only serve to reinforce the military’s control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and by extension nuclear discourse.
The Closed Door on Nuclear Discourse
Khan’s statements are telling of the limited prospects for a democratic debate on nuclear weapons in contemporary Pakistan. Traditionally the discourse on nuclear weapons in Pakistan has been closely monitored, sponsored, regulated, and largely managed by the national security establishment. This discourse has thrived on an inflated perception of the Indian threat and the suspicion of the West.
After Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the civilian leaders had little to no control over the nuclear weapons discourse. It is no secret that the military did not trust the civilian political leadership with nuclear weapons. During the two long decades of being in power, first under General Zia-ul-Haq and later General Pervez Musharraf, the military consolidated its control over the nuclear discourse and decision-making.
The few statements that Khan has made about nuclear weapons so far only serve to reinforce the military’s control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and by extension nuclear discourse.
Throughout the 1990s the India threat and the possibility of political elite’s collusion with the West to roll back/denuclearize Pakistan was perpetuated to undermine the credibility of the elected political leaders. This threat perception continued to flourish under the Musharraf regime with the only exception that the United States was now identified as the key source of the threat of denuclearization.
Perpetuation of this threat perception made the military appear not only indispensable but the sole “trustworthy” guardian in the people’s minds thereby strengthening the military’s control over the national security and nuclear weapons discourse as well as policy. Given the military’s interference in Pakistan’s domestic politics, political parties found that it was imperative for their political survival to unquestioningly support the military’s narrative on national security be it the war on terrorism, military operations in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region and Balochistan, defense spending, and nuclear weapons. When the political parties expressed disagreement, they paid a huge political cost.
It has been only over the past few years with Pakistan’s increasing political instability, the human cost of its participation in the “war against terrorism,” and growing economic woes that the legitimacy of the military’s interference in politics and increasingly the military’s legitimacy as the key arbiter of the national security discourse has been challenged or left undermined in the popular perception.
As chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Imran Khan has publicly disagreed with the military leadership’s outlook on the war against terror, Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, and the military’s operations in the erstwhile FATA region. Since his ouster, Khan has been at the forefront of what is framed by the PTI as the “real independence movement.” Khan’s anti-status quo rhetoric has attracted massive crowds in his political rallies and an impressive victory first in Punjab’s by-elections and more recently in Karachi. The massive appeal of Khan’s narrative has also put him on a collision course with the current government and the military resulting in charges against him under Pakistan’s anti-terror laws. Yet, Khan’s unwillingness to engage with issues pertaining to nuclear weapons suggests a rather bleak future for a democratic debate on nuclear weapons in Pakistan.
Political Change and Nuclear Discourse
In the wake of the political discourse that has emerged in the aftermath of the ouster of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan from the seat of power, one can make the argument that Pakistan is experiencing what the Italian Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci called the interregnum that exists when the old order is dying and the new one is yet to be born. This possible death of the old order has been underway for a few years now. The most prominent early sign arguably was the rise of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in February 2018 which questioned the military’s alleged involvement in enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings but also challenged the military’s view of national security. The visibility of left-wing politics on university campuses also grew over these years supporting similar ideas and promoting an anti-imperialist agenda. However, their following was confined to parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, some university campuses, and small caucuses of progressive activists. With the fall of the PTI’s government, the anti-status quo sentiments erupted at a large scale. Today, the traditional power wielders in Pakistan are openly questioned and criticized. Anti-imperialist foreign policy and the supremacy of the rule of law, constitution, and civilian rule are the most prominent issues in today’s political discourse. In some ways, the old order which represented the military’s monopoly over nationalism and patriotism has been challenged.
In this interregnum, among many other things – good and bad – one encouraging development is the critique that filled up the social media space in the wake of the public announcement of the federal budget for fiscal year 2022-23. Twitterati (active groups of Twitter users) in Pakistan took to social media to criticize the disproportionately high portion of the economy allocated to defense spending questioning the government over misplaced priorities. Highlighting the irony of choosing guns over butter in a country that seems to be on a ventilator awaiting an IMF bailout package, Twitter users in Pakistan made skeptical memes about military spending, including nuclear weapons, and missiles. The resentment expressed in public discourse on social media shows a rare rupture in the much-touted consensus on the bomb.
The former Prime Minister, however, has so far refrained from capturing this critical sentiment in his political rallies. Irrespective of Khan’s recent anti-status quo political rhetoric that is both anti-imperialist and, in some ways, critical of the military’s interference in politics, Khan has notably made only a few statements about nuclear weapons. Oddly enough, Khan’s statements reveal that despite an organic critique of the country’s defense spending and nuclear weapons build-up emerging in the social media space, Khan like other political and military elite is unwilling to challenge the status quo as far as nuclear weapons are concerned.
Rather, Khan’s statements reveal that he is instead perpetuating a status quo that normalizes nuclear violence on the one hand and romanticizes the bomb on the other, consequently, strengthening the military’s control over the bomb and undermining civilian supremacy.
To begin with, Khan’s statement that nuking Pakistan is better than bringing thieves to power is at best ignorant and at worst deeply problematic. Although it is meant to highlight the moral and financial cost of corruption, it additionally trivializes the sanctity of human life and the devastation of nuclear use. Second, who is expected to nuke Pakistan? While purely rhetorical, this statement calls on the military leadership – that Khan has allegedly accused of facilitating a conspiracy to overthrow his government – to do so. Here, Khan is subtly not only acknowledging the military’s role in politics but also putting forth the use of nuclear weapons by the military as an acceptable option. The statement posits that the blatant use of force at the hands of the military could be – under some circumstances an acceptable option. Even if used as an attention-grabbing rhetorical device, normalizing such rhetoric in the political discourse can augment the military’s self-assumed sense of entitlement over the bomb and undermine democratic struggles.
Khan’s statements reveal that he is instead perpetuating a status quo that normalizes nuclear violence on the one hand and romanticizes the bomb on the other, consequently, strengthening the military’s control over the bomb and undermining civilian supremacy.
Secondly, Khan’s statement that the incumbent government is not trustworthy enough to have control of nuclear weapons is clearly symptomatic of traditional ways of thinking about the bomb. Certainly, there is nothing new about trumpeting the international conspiracy against Pakistan’s bomb and the threat of denuclearization. Khan is rather playing the old cards traditionally played by the military. What does it mean for civilian supremacy and democratic politics? To begin with, the fallacy of the argument can not be underestimated. First, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were neither in the hands of the civilians nor they are today. Second, and more importantly, no hands are safe for nuclear weapons – be it the military or the civilians. Khan’s emphasis on who controls the bomb instead of the risks that these weapons inherently pose both to human life and democratic struggles only buttresses the military’s control over the bomb. Third, invoking the threat of denuclearization inadvertently reinforces the military’s narrative on national security that portrays Pakistan as a victim of global conspiracies in need of a strong savior, deflecting people’s attention from Pakistan’s structural problems including among other issues the questions pertaining to military spending and weapons choices.
The Space for Public Debate
Nuclear weapons may not appear in everyday political discourse but once they are securitized and placed above and beyond normal politics, they can be effectively used for manipulating popular opinion and suppressing calls for transparency and accountability on issues that have a substantial bearing on Pakistan’s socio-economic and political order.
Any genuine democratic struggle would require an open debate on all matters of public policy including questions about nuclear weapons starting from the most fundamental ones for example, does Pakistan need nuclear weapons? Why? How much is enough? How much spending on these weapons is justifiable (if at all)? What kinds of risks do nuclear weapons pose to the people of Pakistan and humanity at large?
Ultimately, Khan’s refrain from bringing important questions relating to nuclear weapons into the mainstream political discourse and ignoring the call for accountability of nuclear weapons-related choices will be an opportunity lost in the process of building a genuine democracy that demonstrates civilian supremacy. At the same time, the growing political awakening among the masses in Pakistan including the most populous province Punjab has opened space for the academia and the civil society to reflect on the existing disconnect between the elite’s discourse on nuclear weapons vis-à-vis the ordinary people’s concerns and perspectives that are shaped by a deepening struggle for bread and butter and to hold the political and military leaders accountable for their nuclear policies and choices.
Image 1: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images
Image 2: via PxHere