The most likely apocalypse in our future: An Indian-Pakistani nuclear exchange

The most likely apocalypse in our future: An Indian-Pakistani nuclear exchange

By J. Dana Stuster
Best Defense bureau of nuclear warfare

George Perkovich, director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, confessed to his audience, "Those who really know what’s going on in Pakistan’s nuclear complex aren’t talking about it, and those who are talking, including myself, don’t really know what’s going on in Pakistan’s nuclear complex."

He also said that when he was contacted for the event, he told Richard Weitz (full disclosure: Richard Weitz is a non-resident senior fellow at Center for a New American Security, where Tom is a senior fellow and I intern) he didn’t think it should happen at all, saying "When Americans, especially, talk about nuclear issues and concerns, in particular about the security of nuclear weapons and fissile materials in Pakistan, that gets heard in many ways in Pakistan and almost all of them are not helpful." The discussion, he said, feeds a narrative in Pakistan, veracity aside, that the United States is only interested in self-preservation, its efforts are far from philanthropic, that it is anti-Muslim, playing favorites with India, and leading a concerted effort to denuclearize Pakistan, possibly with Israeli or Indian aid.

The discussion continued, despite the caveats.

The point that all three panelists expressed was simple but important: U.S. fears of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, while valid, overlook the greater threat of a nuclear conflict with India. The fuse to ignite a war has been lit before — at Kargil in 1999, after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and most recently, after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 — but a nuclear exchange has been prevented each time. With each of these incidents, though, the fuse has been cut shorter.

The greatest risk for nuclear war in our time is the scenario in which a Pakistan-based terror group with ties to Inter-Services Intelligence launches another attack on India ("another Mumbai" is the catchphrase, but it won’t necessarily have to be of that scale or spectacle and is widely considered a matter of when, not if) and this touches off a sequence of escalation that results in a nuclear strike and response. It’s nearly happened before. Aparna Pande, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, described the strong pro-nuclear strike faction in Indian politics after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and the common sentiment of, "if Pakistan can cross the border and hit us, why can’t we hit back?" The answer is: because it’s a short fuse. That simple fact, and the peril it implies, has been enough in the past, but it might not be good enough next time.

This is a global problem. "The impact on the United States is potentially larger than people realize," said Matthew Bunn, co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University. He described studies in which nuclear war was simulated using atmospheric models developed for climate change research, "and if cities are actually burned it can cause enough soot to go up into the upper atmosphere that will stay for a long time, to seriously interfere with global agriculture." The resultant nuclear autumn could cause famine, and not just in South Asia. 

The bad news is that Pakistan’s nuclear program is expanding — it’s set to become the fourth largest nuclear power, it is developing smaller, more mobile bombs, and it is building more nuclear reactors to churn out bulk supplies of weapons-grade uranium. The good news, though, is that (as far as we can tell) Pakistan has an effective security program in place. The bombs are under the purview of the military, the most stable and competent institution in the country. They are kept disassembled with the components kept in separate buildings, at secret facilities that both India and the United States would be hard-pressed to find. The sites are guarded by thousands of troops being watched by a meticulous internal affairs bureau to screen out extremists. It might be sufficient if Pakistan were not one of the most threatening and most threatened countries in the world.

Infiltration remains the greatest tactical threat to Pakistan’s nuclear security. There will always be a way to slip through a screening process — in 2009, members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan attacked the Pakistani Army headquarters in military uniforms carrying forged IDs, and previously at least two men affiliated with al Qaeda infiltrated then-President Pervez Musharraf’s security detail and attempted to assassinate him. The insider threat remains, but as Bunn pointed out, there are only so many security measures that can be put in place that will actually improve Pakistan’s already thorough security.

Ultimately, it’s the threat — both in Pakistan’s domestic terror threats and in Indo-Pakistani relations — that needs to be reduced. 

The nuclear issue is only going to become more important as greater emphasis, both here in Washington and in South Asia, is placed on the threat posed by Pakistani militant groups. A journalist for the Pakistani Spectator, in worried and urgent tones, told the panel that, with the prevailing popular opinion in Pakistan, the United States is "pushing Pakistan in the corner, and they are depending more on the weapon because Pakistan is literally collapsing." It will be up to the international community, and largely the United States, to help buttress Pakistan’s faltering democracy. The success or failure of stabilization efforts in the next several years will determine which cliché the Pakistani bomb will become: common ground, bargaining chip, or loose cannon.

The event, "Nuclear Security in Pakistan: Issues and Implications," was sponsored by the Hudson Institute and Partnership for a Secure America. Audio of the event is available online at the Hudson Institute’s website here.