Playing with Nuclear Fire

August 28, 1994

This month's prize for gross political irresponsibility goes to Nawaz Sharif, former prime minster of Pakistan and now opposition leader. At a political rally in the Pakistani portion of Kashmir, Mr. Sharif asserted that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and threatened their use against India if there is another war over Kashmir. That's the equivalent of running through a forest of dry tinder carrying a torch. One stumble and there's a conflagration.

Mr. Sharif is engaged in a bitter political struggle with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who narrowly defeated him in last year's elections. No holds are barred, including toying with the two most volatile issues between the hostile neighbors: the nuclear arms race and India's control over the larger and more desirable portion of the mountain state of Kashmir. Pakistan has baited India into a full-fledged war over Kashmir before. Pandering to the hot-heads in Pakistani Kashmir, especially invoking a nuclear threat, plays into the hands of extremists in both countries who would like nothing better than having another go at each other.

Both nations are playing a dangerous nuclear game. Though officials in both countries deny it, most experts believe that each has, or is capable of quickly assembling, nuclear weapons. (As a former prime minister, Mr. Sharif can be presumed to know the truth.) Both reject international controls despite strong pressure from the U.S. India, which exploded a test device 20 years ago, compounds the problem by developing a ballistic missile that could reach any worthwhile target in Pakistan. To Pakistan, whose fears of India surpass even paranoia, any strengthening of its neighbor's superior military strength is an act of overt hostility which must be matched in kind.

Turning emotionally charged issues into partisan weapons is evidence of Mr. Sharif's political bankruptcy. Ms. Bhutto's government is shaky, her relations with Pakistan's military leaders -- until recently the nation's true rulers -- tenuous. She has tempered her rhetoric in her second term in office and shows signs of responding to international pressures against nuclear proliferation. Pakistani democracy is still too fragile to risk firebrand politics such as Mr. Sharif has been practicing.

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