Once upon a time making nuclear bombs was the biggest thing a country could do. But not any more; North Korea’s successful nuclear test provides rock-solid proof. This is a country that no one admires.

It is unknown for scientific achievement, has little electricity or fuel, food and medicine are scarce, corruption is ubiquitous, and its people live in terribly humiliating conditions under a vicious, dynastic dictatorship. In a famine some years ago, North Korea lost nearly 800,000 people. It has an enormous prison population of 200,000 that is subjected to systematic torture and abuse.

Why does a miserable, starving country continue spending its last penny on the bomb? On developing and testing a fleet of missiles whose range increases from time to time? The answer is clear: North Korea’s nuclear weapons are instruments of blackmail rather than means of defence. Brandished threateningly, and manipulated from time to time, these bombs are designed to keep the flow of international aid going.

Surely the people of North Korea gained nothing from their country’s nuclearisation. But they cannot challenge their oppressors. But, as Pakistan celebrates the 11th anniversary of its nuclear tests, we Pakistanis — who are far freer — must ask: what have we gained from the bomb?

Some had imagined that nuclear weapons would make Pakistan an object of awe and respect internationally. They had hoped that Pakistan would acquire the mantle of leadership of the Islamic world. Indeed, in the aftermath of the 1998 tests, Pakistan’s stock had shot up in some Muslim countries before it crashed. But today, with a large swathe of its territory lost to insurgents, one has to defend Pakistan against allegations of being a failed state. In terms of governance, economy, education or any reasonable quality of life indicators, Pakistan is not a successful state that is envied by anyone. Contrary to claims made in 1998, the bomb did not transform Pakistan into a technologically and scientifically advanced country. Again, the facts are stark. Apart from relatively minor exports of computer software and light armaments, science and technology remain irrelevant in the process of production. Pakistan’s current exports are principally textiles, cotton, leather, footballs, fish and fruit.

This is just as it was before Pakistan embarked on its quest for the bomb. The value-added component of Pakistani manufacturing somewhat exceeds that of Bangladesh and Sudan, but is far below that of India, Turkey and Indonesia. Nor is the quality of science taught in our educational institutions even remotely satisfactory. But then, given that making a bomb these days requires only narrow technical skills rather than scientific ones, this is scarcely surprising.

What became of the claim that the pride in the bomb would miraculously weld together the disparate peoples who constitute Pakistan? While many in Punjab still want the bomb, angry Sindhis want water and jobs — and they blame Punjab for taking these away. Pakhtun refugees from Swat and Buner, hapless victims of a war between the Taliban and the Pakistani Army, are tragically being turned away by ethnic groups from entering Sindh. This rejection strikes deeply against the concept of a single nation united in adversity.

As for the Baloch, they deeply resent that the two nuclear test sites — now radioactive and out of bounds — are on their soil. Angry at being governed from Islamabad, many have taken up arms and demand that Punjab’s army get off their backs. Many schools in Balochistan refuse to fly the Pakistani flag, the national anthem is not sung, and black flags celebrate Pakistan’s independence day. Balochistan University teems with the icons of Baloch separatism: posters of Akbar Bugti, Balaach Marri, Brahamdagh Bugti, and ‘General Sheroff’ are everywhere. The bomb was no glue.

Did the bomb help Pakistan liberate Kashmir from Indian rule? It is a sad fact that India’s grip on Kashmir — against the will of Kashmiris — is tighter today than it has been for a long time. As the late Eqbal Ahmed often remarked, Pakistan’s poor politics helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Its strategy for confronting India — secret jihad by Islamic fighters protected by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons — backfired terribly in the arena of international opinion. More importantly, it created the hydra-headed militancy now haunting Pakistan. Some Mujahideen, who felt betrayed by Pakistan’s army and politicians, ultimately took revenge by turning their guns against their sponsors and trainers. The bomb helped us lose Kashmir.

Some might ask, didn’t the bomb stop India from swallowing up Pakistan? First, an upward-mobile India has no reason to want an additional 170 million Muslims. Second, even if India wanted to, territorial conquest is impossible. Conventional weapons, used by Pakistan in a defensive mode, are sufficient protection. If mighty America could not digest Iraq, there can never be a chance for a middling power like India to occupy Pakistan, a country four times larger than Iraq.

It is, of course, true that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons deterred India from launching punitive attacks at least thrice since the 1998 tests. Pakistan’s secret incursion in Kargil during 1999, the Dec 13 attack on the Indian parliament the same year (initially claimed by Jaish-i-Muhammad), and the Mumbai attack in 2008 by Lashkar-i-Taiba, did create sentiment in India for ferreting out Pakistan-based militant groups. So should we keep the bomb to protect militant groups? Surely it is time to realise that these means of conducting foreign policy are tantamount to suicide.

It was a lie that the bomb could protect Pakistan, its people or its armed forces. Rather, it has helped bring us to this grievously troubled situation and offers no way out. The threat to Pakistan is internal. The bomb cannot help us recover the territory seized by the Baitullahs and Fazlullahs, nor bring Waziristan back to Pakistan. More nuclear warheads, test-launching more missiles, or buying yet more American F-16s and French submarines, will not help.

Pakistan’s security problems cannot be solved by better weapons. Instead, the way forward lies in building a sustainable and active democracy, an economy for peace rather than war, a federation in which provincial grievances can be effectively resolved, elimination of the feudal order and creating a society that respects the rule of law.

It is time for Pakistan to become part of the current global move against nuclear weapons. India — which had thrust nuclearisation upon an initially unwilling Pakistan — is morally obliged to lead. Both must announce that they will not produce more fissile material to make yet more bombs. Both must drop insane plans to expand their nuclear arsenals. Eleven years ago a few Pakistanis and Indians had argued that the bomb would bring no security, no peace. They were condemned as traitors and sellouts by their fellow citizens. But each passing year shows just how right we were.

Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches nuclear physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.