Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaking on Monday, caused a bit of a stir with comments that were initially reported as a pledge by Islamabad to not use its nuclear weapons first in any conflict with India. That’s at least how it was reported by Reuters India, which headlined its story: “Pakistan would not use nuclear weapons first, amid tensions with India: PM Imran Khan.”
That was an attention-grabbing headline. If Khan had said something to that effect, it would have represented a recalibration of standing Pakistani nuclear weapons policy for more than two decades. To deter a conventionally superior India, Pakistan had long relied on the first-use of nuclear weapons. Beginning in the late-2000s, Islamabad lowered the nuclear-use threshold in South Asia even lower by introducing low-yield nuclear weapons for battlefield use. The problem here was that Khan didn’t exactly revisit Pakistani nuclear policy.
So what exactly did Khan say?
A quick review of Khan’s video remarks to the International Sikh Convention in Lahore, where he spoke on Monday, shows that the report on Pakistan apparently pledging no first-use of nuclear weapons was based on a mistranslation. At around 4:00 in the video, he addresses the ongoing India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir, saying something to the effect of the following:
We’re two nuclear-armed neighbors. If going ahead, tensions rise, then the whole world is threatened. So this is why I’m telling you that our side will never be the one to start things.
Those remarks followed a broader diatribe from Khan on the Indian government’s ideological origins, echoing points he’d made recently in an op-ed published by the New York Times. In context, it was clear that the reference to nuclear weapons had little to do with no first-use. Rather, Khan was suggested that Pakistan would not be the party to initiate a war in South Asia over Kashmir.
To clarify the confusion after Khan’s comments, Mohammad Faisal, a spokesperson for the Pakistani Foreign Office, took to Twitter to clarify: “Prime Minister’s comments on Pakistan’s approach towards conflict between two nuclear armed states are being taken out of context. While conflict should not take place between two nuclear states, there’s no change in Pakistan’s nuclear policy.”
Following India’s decision to change the internal status of Kashmir last month, the Pakistani government has sought to emphasize nuclear risks in South Asia — in an apparent effort to draw international attention to the region. On Twitter last month, Khan noted “The World must also seriously consider the safety & security of India’s nuclear arsenal in the control of the fascist, racist Hindu Supremacist Modi Govt.” “This is an issue that impacts not just the region but the world.”