Date: 6/24/2004


..................Salt Lake Tribune, 21 June 2004

Dyer: Pakistan's long-range missile may trigger Israeli pre-emptive strike

............Gwynne Dyer, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST

Late last month Pakistan's Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamal watched a test-launch of the country's Ghauri missile, whose 930-mile range allows it to deliver nuclear warheads anywhere in India except Assam and the far south. There was the usual communique saying that "The prime minister made it clear that Pakistan's edge over its adversaries will be maintained at all costs." And then just a brief reference to the fact that some time this month will see the first test flight of Pakistan's longest-range missile, the Ghauri III missile, which can strike at targets 2,175 miles away.

Now, what target do you suppose that new missile is meant for? It can't be just India, because no part of India is much more than half that distance away from Pakistan. Time to get the atlas out. Okay,the Ghauri III can reach Thailand and Vietnam, but Pakistan has no quarrel with them. It can just about reach Beijing, but China is sort of an ally (at least in the sense that it also sees India as a strategic rival). So what could it be? . . . Oh, look, it can reach Israel.

Back in 1982, in Tel Aviv, I interviewed a man called Meir Pa'il. He was a left-wing member of the Knesset who had once served as a colonel on the Israeli general staff, and he told me a story. It was about Israel's nuclear weapons, which Israel never officially confirms that it has, and since he didn't want to end up in jail for 18 years like Mordechai Vanunu later did, he told his story carefully, without ever saying the magic words "nuclear weapons." But his meaning was absolutely clear.

The subject was hot, because just the previous year Israeli planes had flown all the way to Iraq in an unprovoked attack to destroy an experimental nuclear reactor, "Osirak," that was under construction there. Basically, it was an election stunt by Menachem Begin's Likud government, which was in the midst of a hard-fought re- election campaign and needed a patriotic boost.

The reactor could not produce weapons-grade material, and in any case Israeli intelligence must have known that Saddam Hussein was at least 10 years away from nuclear weapons. But the subject was on people's minds.

Pa'il told me that in the late '50s, the Israeli government had been deciding to build a new weapon (which must remain anonymous) that would give it total strategic superiority in the region.

Like every member of the general staff, he had the right to demand a full conference to make his case to his colleagues if he thought that a serious mistake was being made. If they didn't agree with him, of course, his military career would be finished -- but he demanded the meeting anyway.

Pa'il argued that Israel was already militarily secure, and could not be beaten for the foreseeable future by any combination of Arab armies. Perfectly true; in fact, it's still true today. So why, he asked, would any Israeli government take the lead in introducing a new weapon into the region which, if the Arabs eventually got it too, would negate Israel's existing military superiority and expose it to the danger of annihilation? Indeed, wouldn't Israel's possession of this weapon actually goad the Arabs into trying to match it?

They heard him out and rejected his argument, so he retired from the army and went into politics. Israel's nuclear weapons were duly built -- there are now at least 200 of them -- and for more than 40 years, Israel has gotten away with it. Pa'il's concern was reasonable, but he was wrong: No Arab country except Iraq ever seriously tried to get a nuclear weapon, and even Saddam Hussein gave up when United Nations arms inspectors dismantled his whole program after his defeat in the Gulf war of 1991. Israel has been very lucky - - until now.

Pakistan's nuclear weapons were not built with Israel in mind, of course. They were a response to India's determined drive for nuclear weapons, partly because it felt vulnerable to China, partly just as a badge of great-power status.

It is not known if any colonel on the Indian general staff ever pointed out that India enjoyed unchallengeable military superiority over Pakistan -- six times the population and almost 10 times the economy -- UNLESS both sides acquired nuclear weapons, in which case both sides would be equally and totally vulnerable to destruction. If he did, nobody listened.

So India got nukes, and therefore Pakistan got them.

Eventually, in 1998, India tested its weapons publicly, so Pakistan did, too. But long before that, both sides were already building missiles to deliver the nuclear weapons. India wanted a long-range one (because it thinks in terms of a nuclear conflict with China), so Pakistan's armed forces asked for a long-range missile, too.

Did the generals who asked for it know that it would put Israel within range of Pakistan's nuclear weapons? I don't know, but most generals can read maps.

Nobody's luck lasts forever: Israel will soon be vulnerable to a nuclear strike at last. The present Pakistani government would never consider such a thing, but if Islamist extremists should ever seize power there -- well, Pakistan is very vulnerable to an Israeli pre- emptive nuclear strike, and Israel never lets the other side get in the first blow if it can help it.

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Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.