Pakistan Sets Off Nuclear Blasts
By John Ward Anderson and Kamran Khan
"Today, we have settled a score and have carried out five successful nuclear tests," Sharif said in a televised speech to the nation.
In a later address to Pakistani and foreign reporters, Sharif said: "Our security, and the peace and stability of the entire region, was gravely threatened. As any self-respecting nation, we had no choice left for us. Our hand was forced by the present Indian leadership's reckless actions. . . . We could not ignore the magnitude of the threat."
Citing the threat of "war or external aggression," Pakistani President Rafiq Tarar early today declared a state of emergency. The move appeared to be aimed at stopping the flight of foreign capital, rather than a prelude to military conflict. The president froze all foreign currency accounts, meaning that businesses and individuals cannot remove money from the country.
Pakistan's tests will trigger strict economic sanctions that financial analysts say will likely force the country to default on $32 billion in international loans. As required by U.S. law, President Clinton moved to impose sanctions, saying, "Pakistan lost a truly priceless opportunity to strengthen its own security, to improve its political standing in the eyes of the world."
The tests apparently were conducted at about 3:30 p.m. (6:30 a.m. EDT) Thursday at the Chagai Hills test site in western Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. No details on their size or the nature of the devices detonated were released. The U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo., said the strongest test had a preliminary magnitude of 4.9 on the Richter scale -- compared to India's strongest blast, which registered 5.4.
The statements emanating from Pakistan's leadership shifted between threat and conciliation. Notably absent from Sharif's remarks, for example, was a "no first strike" pledge governing Pakistan's strategic weapons. India made such a pledge immediately after its tests, then modified the offer somewhat this week.
In fact, Sharif suggested just the opposite, noting, "These weapons are to deter aggression, whether nuclear or conventional." The statement appeared to imply that if Pakistan, whose conventional forces are greatly inferior to India's, were to face defeat in a conventional war, it might resort to nuclear arms.
A government statement issued Thursday said that Pakistan's "long-range Ghauri missile is already being capped with nuclear warheads to give a befitting reply to any misadventure by the enemy." The Ghauri has a range of 930 miles, putting it within range of most of India's major cities.
Sharif said, however, that Pakistan will turn "anew to support the goal of global disarmament and nonproliferation." Pakistan has "instituted effective command and control structures" to safeguard its weapons and prevent accidents and will not transfer sensitive nuclear technology to other countries, Sharif said.
Pakistan is ready to talk with other countries about nuclear issues, he said, adding, "We are prepared to resume Pakistan-India dialogue to address all outstanding issues, including the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as peace and security."
"Today, the flames of the nuclear fire are all over," Sharif said. "I am thankful to God that . . . we have jumped into these flames . . . with courage."
Many Pakistanis, believing that their pride and national honor were at stake, had waited impatiently for two weeks for the government to answer India's tests. In the financial capital of Karachi, some celebrated tonight by distributing sweets, while here in the capital, fireworks lighted the night sky.
The development of a nuclear device is considered an extraordinary achievement here for a Third World country with few natural resources, little capital and a tiny industrial base. Thursday's tests were the culmination of a top-secret program, run by the army with no civilian or political oversight, that began in 1972 after India defeated Pakistan in a war that split off East Pakistan into what is today Bangladesh. Over the years, the program relied on a worldwide campaign to buy or steal sensitive atomic materials and technology, as well as to build a nuclear bomb and missile delivery system with critical assistance, including a bomb design, from China.
Today, Pakistan's nuclear program is still firmly under military control, raising serious questions about who will make the decision to produce, deploy and, if the situation were to arise, use nuclear weapons. Both India and Pakistan have missile systems and planes capable of delivering an atomic warhead, and nuclear weapons experts have said they will be under enormous pressure to deploy the weapons after testing them.
Pakistan's decision to push forward with testing and confirm its long-suspected nuclear capabilities came after two weeks of intense diplomatic pressure on it not to follow India's example. Sharif was besieged by telephone calls from world leaders, including President Clinton, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, all of whom offered to help Pakistan with conventional weapons and economic assistance if Sharif would forgo nuclear testing.
The tests also followed provocative rhetoric and actions by India's government, a 14-party coalition led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Acting on a longstanding party pledge that became government policy when the government took power in March, the BJP staged India's nuclear tests just six weeks after gaining office.
Shortly after the tests, Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani warned Pakistan that it should recognize the new strategic reality and stop interfering in Kashmir, a mountainous border region that both countries claim as their own. The comments hardened demands from inside Pakistan, especially among influential Muslim leaders, to respond with tests.
Pakistani military sources said that recent Indian troop movements along the border in Kashmir -- long considered a prime flash point for nuclear war -- also raised concern that the Indian army might cross into Pakistani territory unless Pakistan demonstrated its nuclear capability and resolve.
For years, the two rivals were presumed to have nuclear weapons-making capabilities but preferred wrapping their nuclear programs in ambiguity. The uncertainty about whether either country had a nuclear weapon and would use it in battle served to deter both countries from pursing aggressive, overt military campaigns against each other. But Western intelligence sources have said that, in the process, it also led them to the brink of a nuclear exchange on one or two occasions.
Neither country can afford an expensive arms and missile race that would divert billions of dollars from improving health, housing, education and other programs that India's 950 million people and Pakistan's 135 million desperately need. But after a decent interval, analysts said, it is possible that Thursday's test will restore the strategic balance -- however unstable -- that was dashed with India's tests.
Nevertheless, Pakistan's tests were met with the same international outcry that followed India's -- and may result in the same economic sanctions that were imposed on India. But the impact is likely to be much graver here because of the country's smaller economy and bleaker debt picture. Under U.S. law, Washington must suspend foreign aid to both countries, ban private banking assistance to their governments and vote against loans and grants from multilateral lending institutions, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank.
Financial analysts have said -- and Sharif was warned by top aides -- that with a national debt of $50 billion, annual debt payments of $5.5 billion and only about $1 billion in foreign exchange reserves, there is a real threat that Pakistan will default on its international loans, which could lead to spiraling inflation, currency devaluation and social and political upheaval.
The president's decision to declare a state of emergency came as panic selling drove the main Karachi Stock Exchange index, the KSE-100, to 1,048 points, its lowest level in years. Since India's detonations two weeks ago, the index has lost 495 points, almost a third of its value.
Under the emergency decree and a separate order freezing foreign exchange accounts, all banks will be closed today, and the licenses of private currency exchange houses were canceled. Under the emergency proclamation, courts will not have the right to hear cases brought by people or businesses claiming they have illegally lost the right to control their money. The emergency order also suspends the rights of free movement, speech, assembly and trade.
Analysts said that the number of tests conducted by Pakistan -- five -- was surprising, given that international experts had estimated the country possessed enough fissionable materials to construct just 15 to 25 nuclear weapons, meaning that it could have used as much as a third of its stockpile Thursday. India, analysts say, has enough materials to construct as many as 74 weapons.
Anderson reported from Islamabad, Khan from Karachi.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company