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Did Nawaz Disclose A National Secret By Revealing Pakistan Reverse-Engineered Tomahawk Missile?

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The scene was Muhammadi Square in Jhelum city. It was a month before July 2018 parliamentary elections. I was interviewing street vendors, pedestrians and shopkeepers in the bustling bazaar. Nawaz Sharif had just spoken against specific military officials for their interference in the electoral process and the news channels were abuzz with his comments and commentators‘ analysis.

I asked a fruit vendor—who identified himself as a supporter of Nawaz Sharif—what he makes of Sharif’s comments against the military officials. “Nawaz Sharif is not against the military….it is basically the bad media, which is quoting him out of context,” the vendor said. I proceeded to ask the same question to a meat shop owner. The response was exactly the same—he also blamed the media and tried to portray Nawaz Sharif as pro-army.

I asked this question to at least six more people in the streets of Jhelum. The response I got was the same—they blamed the media and thought Nawaz Sharif did not have any anti-army tendencies. My interviews with people in the streets of Jhelum would still be considered an anecdotal evidence at best and could not be described as a scientific depiction of how the people of Jhelum or to be more specific Nawaz Sharif’s supporters would have viewed his anti-Army tirades in 2018. But sometimes anecdotal evidence could provide you with basic material evidence to form an opinion about political developments in the society—Jhelum being a garrison city with every other family sending their sons to the land forces, it is hard to imagine Nawaz Sharif’s supporters behaving otherwise.

Perhaps Nawaz Sharif had this type of thinking of his supporters in mind when he spoke melodramatically to express support for army officers who, he said, were laying down their lives to defend Pakistan. In the same breath Nawaz Sharif tried to claim credit for the development of cruise missile technology by Pakistani engineers. He told media men in London that it was he who arranged for American cruise missiles—few of which missed their targets in Afghan province of Khost, and dropped in Balochistan, in 1998 when US administration launched hundreds of them on Osama Bin Laden’s camp inside Afghanistan—to be imported to Pakistani laboratories for reverse engineering and development of its own model of Cruise missile by Pakistan.

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Although this was a well-known fact among the strategic communities in Washington and Islamabad that Pakistan reverse engineered American Cruise to develop its own version of cruise missile, Pakistani rulers or former rulers usually desist from making such claims in public to avoid any type of backlash from non-proliferation lobby in Washington and other Western capitals. Why did Nawaz Sharif decide to reveal this fact at this stage when he was about to launch anti-military top brass agitation in the country? Did he intend to bring more pressure on the military bosses by revealing a secret, which is not at all a secret among the strategic thinkers, but which if revealed by a decision maker or former decision makers would have cost at the diplomatic level? Can Nawaz Sharif’s claim lead to imposition of sanctions on Pakistani missile producing establishment?

It is difficult to read Nawaz Sharif’s mind without probing him further on this point. However, two types of explanations could be put forward to understand the motives behind Nawaz Sharif’s claim.

  1. First, Nawaz Sharif has made this claim in order to attract his traditional constituency in northern and central Punjab, which is pro-Army and pro-Nawaz Sharif at the same time. This middle class, lower middle class constituency is belligerent and jingoistic in its outlook and usually gets attracted to anyone speaking in terms of portraying Pakistan as a military power. So stories of cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, tanks, aircrafts and nuclear bombs development are very attractive to this constituency. By claiming himself to be someone who has contributed to strengthening Pakistan’s military power, Nawaz Sharif is trying to endear himself to this constituency. Maybe if this constituency is ready to take Nawaz Sharif seriously at this point, they may also take him seriously on the point that he was not against the military, rather he is against few who have been interfering in the country’s electoral politics.
  2. Second, Nawaz Sharif is trying to bring the military top brass under pressure by provoking the non-proliferation lobby in western capitals to initiate a campaign against Pakistani nuclear and missile establishment. This is a less plausible explanation for the reasons that Pakistani nuclear and missile establishment is already heavily sanctioned by the western countries. Besides, the fact that Pakistan missile programs are based either on reverse engineering or direct import of technology from China and North Korea, is a well known fact in Western intelligence and foreign policy establishments. There are other examples of Pakistani rulers or former rulers making this revelation public while they were in power or after they had been ousted from power. General Musharraf revealed in his book “In the Line of Fire” (the book was published while he was still in power) that Pakistan purchased long range missile technology from North Korea with hard cash. Secondly Benazir Bhutto also revealed after dismissal of her second government that she travelled to North Korea to sign a deal for the purchase of Ghauri missile.
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Nawaz Sharif in his simplicity may have tried to attract his traditional constituency by making the claim about the reality of Pakistani cruise missile technology, but his statement will now become a most quoted quote in foreign policy assessments by western foreign ministries of Pakistani missile programs. It is true that Pakistani nuclear and missile program establishments have maintained a certain level of transparency in dealing with the western countries to come clean on questions coming from non-proliferation lobbies in these capitals. But for non-proliferation lobbies in Western capitals Nawaz Sharif’s claim would remain an asset for years to come.

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Naya Daur