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The Nuclear and Science Policy Paradigm of Pakistan and Regional Stability

By Wasif Syed

Wasif Syed

Wasif Syed

The US has just gone through a transformative time in its history–it has just elected its first African-American President, Barack Obama. For many this feat, in and of itself, is indicative of the fact that the US has come a long way since the start of the civil rights movement over 50 years ago. For others, it represents the shift in changing attitudes in America. Overall, one cannot but feel that something is changing. During the gruesome two years of campaigning that each candidate engaged in, several issues–both on the domestic and foreign front–were brought to light. On the foreign policy front, one country that was mentioned repeatedly in various contexts was Pakistan and its role in the international sphere was scrutinized at length. It is therefore conducive to better understand Pakistan and its policies from various perspectives. This article will discuss the nuclear and science policy of Pakistan and its role in regional stability.

Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998 shortly after India’s tests served as a stern reminder that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction was far from over. The architect behind Pakistan’s nuclear program was Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is considered a hero among the Pakistani population in spite of the fact that he allegedly sold nuclear secrets to other nations considered to be hostile to the US. His reputation in Pakistan was undiminished and many considered him to be a scapegoat of the government as part of a larger conspiracy. Nevertheless, whatever the reality may have been, his abilities as a scientist are not in doubt. 

I recently spoke with Terry Wallace, Principal Associate Director for Science, Technology and Engineering at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who closely monitored the Pakistani nuclear testing program while he was a professor at the University of Arizona. He said that “A.Q. Khan developed a very sophisticated program that no one expected.” Wallace went on to comment that “Pakistan took a very different path than the US or Russia.” Pakistan’s nuclear program was a remarkable achievement, primarily because it was a completely indigenous program. The primary purpose of Pakistan’s nuclear tests was simply as a deterrent in response to India’s tests. It is imperative to understand that Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons not for a greater ambition of being part of a bloc of superpowers that possess nuclear weapons but in light of ensuring its own national security after India had decided to take the initiative to conduct nuclear tests and declare itself a nuclear power. 

In spite of the rhetoric questioning the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal during the recent US presidential campaign, Wallace expressed the view that “officially the US believes that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe.” The threat to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been exaggerated. What has not been exaggerated is the expectation that India will conduct more testing in the near future which is not ideal from the US standpoint. If India does opt to take this path, inevitably, Pakistan will follow suit.

On the science policy front, Pakistan has much work to do. In the Fall of 2006, President Musharraf was invited to speak at Cornell University and arrived with 55 members of his cabinet. He delivered an emphatic speech touching upon a range of issues pertinent to an elite academic audience. One of the issues he mentioned that was very close to his heart was the issue of Western-educated individuals of Pakistani-origin returning to Pakistan to help rebuild the country in the science and technology sectors. This notion of “investment in human capital” was a cornerstone of Pakistan’s vision to rebuild its scientific infrastructure.

It was under President Musharraf’s directive that the Government of Pakistan Planning Commission compiled a very lofty and ambitious “Vision 2030” report that outlined a series of measures that would need to be implemented to attain its aspirations for scientific and technologic innovation. The underlying vision outlined in the report was “a developed, industrialized, just and prosperous Pakistan through rapid and sustainable development in a resource-constrained economy by deploying knowledge inputs.” Although President Musharraf did take the initiative to open up several new universities in Pakistan during his tenure, the overall implementation of the plan undoubtedly did lag. Now, with a new government in place, under the directive of President Zardari, the question is whether he will continue President Musharraf’s policies. President Zardari has not yet taken the time to consider science policy in any serious way especially at a time when a crisis is looming, so it is too early to say what direction he plans on taking the country.

In 2007, the US-Pakistan Joint Committee on Science and Technology held its first meeting at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, VA. This committee was created under the framework of the Agreement on Science and Technology Cooperation signed by the US and Pakistan in 2003. This agreement was an element of the Pakistan-US Strategic Partnership affirmed by President Musharraf and President Bush in 2006. The committee’s purpose is to enhance cooperation in areas of science and technology, higher education and engineering, and to strengthen the capacity of education, research, and innovation between United States and Pakistani institutions of higher education and research establishments. The Joint Committee is also mandated to enable innovative, entrepreneurial partnerships between the two countries’ respective science and technology business communities. The high-level meeting in 2007 was a key development on the scientific front for Pakistan. The next meeting is planned for 2009 but it depends on whether President Zardari honors the agreement and decides to continue in this direction. 

One of the first tangible manifestations of the NSF-Pakistan science efforts was the development of a new high speed network connection which was inaugurated in October 2008. This new network connection will enable Pakistani scientists to work with their international colleagues and peers on research projects that require fast data transfer and facilitate transmission of this information across the globe. According to Arden Bement, Director of the National Science Foundation, “This represents a major milestone in the development of physical network connectivity between Pakistan and the global scientific community.” In a recent communication that I had with Jeff Nesbit, the director of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at the NSF, “The high speed connection linking Pakistan to the global research community is an excellent example of both the US and EC commitment to Pakistan’s science community. It’s a good model for future cooperation and collaboration on other science and research efforts.”

Although such agreements are conducive to both parties, there are many hindrances to Pakistan’s development as a scientific and technology powerhouse–two of the fundamental predicaments are poverty and corruption. The disparity between the rich and poor is enormous and getting larger day-by-day. It is a feudal society with the majority of the population living in rural areas, and furthermore illiteracy is very high in the country. Pakistan requires a complete overhaul of the educational system, and this reform has to be initiated from the grassroots level to be able to develop its infrastructure. Granted any imposition of change has to be gradual, so the proposition herein is one for a long-term solution. Another problem is that corruption exists throughout all levels of society and government. Embezzlement of funds is a practice that administrations have engaged in to various degrees. Pakistan, like many countries is not a meritocratic society–nepotism is rampant. Although such practices also exist in the US, the degree of the malady is considerably less. 

Ultimately, a reform of the educational paradigm is required at the local level across the country. This requires a significant degree of fiscal investment by the government. Adoption of Western school systems is one way to proceed. To add diversity to the schooling options available in Pakistan, more international schools should be built. Although private schools with British and American curricula are present in Pakistan, these are, for the most part, only accessible to the upper echelons of society. One success story though, is the Turkish schools that recently have started to open up across Pakistan. They have been able to assimilate students from poor socio-economic backgrounds and provide them with a first-rate education. More such models are needed. 

Additional investments are needed to develop scientific laboratories and institutions of higher learning that can train students to develop Pakistan’s science and technology sectors. School administrators also need to be closely monitored as the same corruption that is prevalent at the governmental level is quite often found among university-level administrators.

The state of scientific affairs was not always this appalling in the Islamic World. There was indeed a time during the Islamic Empire, from the 9th to 13th century, when the center of learning was located in Baghdad. It was called the “House of Wisdom” (Bait Al-Hikma in Arabic). This was a place and time of extreme scientific and technological innovation. Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars were all present in a central location working collaboratively on some of the most advanced problems of their time under the umbrella of an Islamic government. This spirit of innovation led to pioneering discoveries from fundamental tools in mathematics such as algebra, to optics in physics, and to medicine. Philosophical works by Aristotle, Plato and Socrates were also embraced by the Islamic Empire at a time when these were considered blasphemous by Christendom. In fact these very works were translated from Greek to Arabic in the House of Wisdom and then later found themselves in the Western corner of Europe in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain–the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by Muslims for almost 800 years). They then provided the fundamental outgrowth for the Italian Renaissance. The ambiance that was omnipresent during the House of Wisdom years has been long been lost and on some level, Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic World needs to implement this very paradigm to recreate the same spirit of innovation that will allow it to progress on multiple fronts including in science and technology.

At present, it would be fair to say that contemplating implementing the paradigm of the House of Wisdom is not a discourse conducive for Pakistan to engage in, as there are more pressing matters at hand–such as the massive economic crisis. This past summer, in a conversation that I had with Musharraf’s Chief of Staff, it was already clear that the country’s situation was not rosy and symptoms of what it is to come were surfacing. With inflation sky-high, consumer spending at an all-time low, unemployment rampant, and with the recent devastating earthquake that hit southwestern Pakistan, the country’s economy is desperately weak. According to a recent article in the Economist, on Oct 17th the central bank’s liquid asset reserve was just over $4 billion, enough only to cover about 4-5 weeks of imports. Pakistan was forced to go to the IMF to seek funds, and it is widely anticipated that the IMF will bail out Pakistan. Furthermore, in a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Zardari met with King Abdullah who agreed to bail out Pakistan with a substantial oil supply on deferred payment and cash assistance, according to media reports. Ultimately what matters is the manifestation of these bailouts for the average person on the street in Pakistan. Until he or she is able to reap the benefits of this monetarily, the country will keep regressing further.

It is important to understand the regional significance of Pakistan. The country borders three different cultures and is strategically situated. The US government always seeks strategic allies and therefore Pakistan is strategically important for the US. Pakistan plays an important role in regional stability, especially with the current ongoing war in neighboring Afghanistan. It is inevitable the US will have to intervene in Pakistan at some point to maintain regional stability. However, the US needs to exert more pressure on Pakistan to reform. Only after the basic mechanisms of reforms are initiated, and closely monitored by the US, will the effects trickle down and directly impact science and nuclear policy. However, the first priority is the economic prosperity of Pakistan, especially with many in the country suffering direly–only once this is meticulously addressed can the country prosper on any serious level. Furthermore, now coupled with the recent events in Mumbai, Pakistan has more than it bargained for on its plate. The “blame game” between India and Pakistan is standard modus operandi and with elevated tensions, this predicament needs to be addressed.

There is an intricate connection between what Pakistan needs and what the US needs. Both have been yearning for change–though we have yet to see that materialize in Pakistan for the good. Although we have elected our first African-American President, only time will tell what change it will bring to this country and how different it will be from the last 8 years. As President-Elect Obama said in his address in Grant Park in Chicago on the monumental evening of November 4th, 2008, “change has come to America.” History will determine what that change is and if the manifestations of such a change are to directly impact countries like Pakistan in our lifetimes.

Wasif Syed is a PhD candidate in applied physics at Cornell University. He was Chairman of the Musharraf Welcome Committee from 2005-2006 and in 2006 he brought and coordinated the visit of Pakistani President Musharraf to Cornell along with his cabinet members.

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