Since the military coup in Pakistan early this month, there has been considerable speculation about the security implications for South Asia and regions beyond. A conference this week in London focused on these matters. RFE/RL London correspondent Ben Partridge files this report.
London, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A British expert on security issues in South Asia has dismissed claims the military coup in Pakistan will lead to an escalation of regional nuclear tensions.
Chris Smith was commenting during a conference this week at the Royal Institute of International Affairs on the ouster in a coup on Oct. 12 of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Smith is an authority on weapons proliferation at the Center for Defense Studies at King's College, London. He notes that the coup has led to speculation of a stepped-up nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan -- two nuclear-capable neighbors. Both were criticized internationally last year for conducting nuclear weapons tests.
Smith says the world wants both nations to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which seeks to halt the global arms race and ban all nuclear tests. But Smith also says the arrest of Sharif, democratically elected by a landslide in Pakistan's elections in 1997, has not raised nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan.
"So many pundits go on television and radio and say, yes, this is a dark hour the region is going through. I actually do not agree. We know there is a nuclear capability on both sides, but I do believe there is a degree of nuclear responsibility on both sides as well."
Smith says outside opinion on the nuclear weapons apparently held by New Delhi and Islamabad is, in his words, "quite patronizing." He notes the Pakistani military was in charge of its nuclear arsenal before the coup and, after the takeover by army strongman General Pervez Musharraf, nothing has changed.
Musharraf declared martial law after the arrest of Sharif by the Pakistani military, which was reported to be particularly incensed by his handling of the Kashmir crisis over the summer.
Two months of fighting erupted between Pakistani and Indian forces after Pakistani-backed Muslim militants crossed into Indian-held territory around the town of Kargil in disputed Kashmir.
The crisis was the latest collision between India and Pakistan which have fought three wars over Kashmir since partition of the sub-continent after the end of British colonial rule in 1947.
Sharif is reported to have ordered the Islamic militants to withdraw under pressure from Washington.
Zafar Iqbal Cheema, an authority on South Asian security, also addressed the conference. He agrees with the widely held view that the Sharif's climbdown over Kashmir was the catalyst behind the coup.
"There was a politics of agitation in Pakistan. All mainstream political parties decided to agitate and seek the removal of the Prime Minister. Again it started from Kargil. Kargil was the catalyst, and where the whole process of the politics of agitation started and gradually built up. And calls were made on the army chiefs that this government was not in the national interests of Pakistan, and therefore should be removed."
But Cheema says many Pakistanis were also disillusioned by Sharif's attempts to grab ever-more power. Sharif had dismissed one president and removed his successor's powers to depose him as prime minister. Cheema says there was also anger at Sharif's style of decision-making, where decisions were made not in the cabinet, or parliament, but in a "kitchen cabinet" of close family members.
Chris Smith says the coup is likely to have regional and international implications. He says these include the situation in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has had close ties to the Taliban militia controlling most of the country.
Smith says it is significant that Musharraf's first visit abroad after the military coup was to Saudi Arabia which, along with the U.S., is likely to press him n-o-t to support the Taliban. Smith says he understands that Musharraf is not a radical in religious terms, but a moderate. And he says Musharraf will likely depend on the ongoing financial support of the Saudis.
Smith says the coup reflects the fact that the political system in Pakistan is "in a terrible mess and the economy is in a free-fall." But he doubts if the coup will have any effect on the Kashmir impasse which remains, in his words, an "unsolvable conflict."
Smith says the latest Kashmir crisis reinforced the domestic standing of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and helped in his recent election victory. Smith says this should actually aid regional stability.
"[Vajpayee] managed to convince many Indians that he was a leader of national status, and his party would be a national party capable of addressing national security issues. This was tremendously important for the result of the elections. He will be at pains to continue this image, of maturity, of statesmanlike qualities, and so forth. I cannot see him taking advantage of the Pakistan situation."
Smith says Pakistan's economy is on the brink of collapse, and is only kept alive by World Bank and IMF credits. He says the U.S. will likely back both organizations in an attempt to encourage bilateral donors to keep faith with Pakistan. But he says much depends on the military regime's readiness to return the nation to democracy as promised.
Cheema says he cannot predict if the army will carry out its pledge. But he says that, while he does not think personal ambition was a factor in the coup, "politics has its own dynamics." Cheema adds: "Even if you do not have the intention to grab power, once you get it and taste it, you might not be willing to relinquish it."