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Islamabad Dispatch: Trigger Happy

Few Americans have heard of Abdul Qadeer Khan, but in Pakistan he is a household name, a national hero of Elvis proportions. A street in Islamabad bears his name. His image appears on the back of brightly painted trucks. Schoolchildren and retirees alike sing his praises. No, Khan is not a cricket player or a movie star or even a politician. He is a nuclear scientist: the father of Pakistan's bomb.

South Asia's war clouds may be dissipating, but Khan's glory is not only intact; it's stronger than ever. Many Pakistanis believe it is Khan's handiwork--several dozen nuclear warheads that he developed between 1975 and 1998, when Pakistan tested its first bomb--that now seems to have saved their country from annihilation. And across the border, India's nuclear superstar, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (like Khan, a Muslim), is also being showered with accolades: The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) this week nominated him for president, a mostly ceremonial position, but it's not bad for a septuagenarian scientist who writes poetry in his spare time.

The West might like to believe that the recent showdown over Kashmir has shaken India and Pakistan out of their nuclear daydream. It has not; if anything, it has had the opposite effect. India believes it was its nuclear threat, combined with the world's post-September 11 intolerance of terrorism, that last week forced Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to finally rein in the jihadis--the Islamist militants who have caused so much grief in Kashmir. For its part, Pakistan is convinced that, without the bomb, India would have attacked--as it did several times in South Asia's pre-nuclear age. In other words, leaders of both countries seem to have drawn the same lesson from last month's crisis: Deterrence works. Meanwhile, they are racing to build bigger bombs carried on longer-range missiles. It's not exactly the cooling-down period the world was hoping for.

One of the few dissenters from Pakistan's love affair with the bomb is Pervez Hoodbhoy, an MIT-educated nuclear physicist and peace activist. "We may be able to periodically ride out crises," he recently told me, "but at some point it is going to come to a stop. You are either going to get nuked, or you are going to nuke somebody." But Hoodbhoy is a lonely voice. Being an anti-nuclear activist in South Asia these days is like being a pack-a-day smoker in the United States: At best, you are tolerated as an eccentric out of step with the times; at worst, you are seen as a danger to society. Hoodbhoy is tolerated--but just barely. His documentary on the dangers of nuclear war has been shown on television in Canada and Japan but not in Pakistan.

Most Pakistanis dismiss Hoodbhoy as an alarmist. If deterrence worked for the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war, they argue, why won't it work in South Asia? Maybe it will, but there are key differences between the cold war and the hot war currently being waged on the subcontinent. For one thing, the United States and the Soviet Union never drew blood on the battlefield--at least not directly. India and Pakistan, by contrast, have fought three bloody wars. And since an Indian invasion could quickly put its army on the outskirts of some of Pakistan's biggest cities, Islamabad might deem a nuclear response necessary to ensure its national survival--something neither Russia nor the United States ever had to contemplate. Secondly, Washington and Moscow were separated by thousands of miles. Pakistan and India share a long border, along which local feuds like that over Kashmir can set off larger hostilities. The shorter distances also allow for less reaction time, and India and Pakistan have yet to install the safeguards that helped keep the cold war cold. There is no hot line, for instance, between New Delhi and Islamabad. Finally, the two countries share a deep, venomous hatred, the kind only sibling rivalries seem to engender. A half-million people died during Partition, when the British carved up their South Asian empire into India and Pakistan. Muslims and Hindus slaughtered each other back then, and they still do today: In the past few months religious mob violence has taken at least 1,000 lives in the Indian state of Gujarat. Cold war animosities, while intense, do not compare.

But despite these dangers, few South Asians question the wisdom of possessing nuclear weapons. Why? Because nuclear weapons offer a fast track to international prestige and respect; they command the world's attention in a way that aids or poverty or, for that matter, conventional weapons simply do not. Would Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have jetted halfway around the world if Pakistan and India were threatening each other merely with tanks? India and Pakistan are now on the map, and they have the bomb to thank. Shortly after the May 1998 nuclear tests, Indian commentator Chandan Mitra put it this way: "[T]he bomb is a currency of self-esteem."

South Asia's nuclear-tipped self-esteem is on display everywhere. When the two nations tested nuclear bombs in 1998, people on both sides of the border danced in the streets, swept up in the euphoria of the moment. In Pakistan religious parties printed t-shirts that boasted of the world's "first Islamic bomb." Even the names of the missiles that carry these weapons are laden with meaning. Pakistan's medium-range Ghauri missile, for instance, is named after a twelfth-century Afghan warlord who waged two fierce battles against the Hindu rulers of northern India. He was defeated in the first battle, but he later returned with a bigger army and trounced the Hindus.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, South Asians display an odd mix of bravado and ignorance. They love the bomb yet know little of its destructive power. Many people I spoke with believe a nuclear bomb is exactly like a conventional bomb, only a bit bigger. The Indian and Pakistani governments seem content to keep their citizens in the dark about the terrifying realities of nuclear war. They rarely hold civil-defense drills; offer no pamphlets on radioactive contamination; and, in Pakistan at least, prevent the broadcast of anti-nuclear materials like Hoodbhoy's documentary. And so it's not surprising that ordinary Indians and Pakistanis rode out this latest crisis while hardly missing a beat. While the world fretted about the prospect of nuclear Armageddon, people in Islamabad quietly went about their business, more concerned about the arrival of the summer monsoon than about finding the nearest fallout shelter. (There aren't any.) Unlike Americans during the height of the cold war, South Asians don't even pretend to prepare for nuclear war. Islamabad's civil-defense budget is a whopping $40,000, and it has yet to be allocated this year.

"Part of me feels grateful that most people here don't have any notion of the horrors of nuclear war," the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy wrote in an essay published this week in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. "And yet it is this ignorance that makes nuclear weapons so much more dangerous. It is this ignorance that makes 'deterrence' a terrible joke." Certainly, there is no turning back. As the United States discovered decades ago, once the nuclear genie is out of the bottle it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to put it back. But the United States has attained a certain level of, for lack of a better term, nuclear maturity that India and Pakistan have yet to reach. And while the United States and Russia are reducing their nuclear arsenals, India and Pakistan are heading in the opposite direction. So far they have been lucky. The world can only hope that during the next crisis--and there will be a next crisis--their luck holds.

This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.