Take Pakistan’s Nukes, Please

The Taliban's brazen raid on a Karachi naval base shows why the Pakistani state can't be trusted with the world's most deadly weapons.


For more than six decades, Pakistan has been at war with itself, torn between competing ideas of what it means to be Pakistani. In Pakistan’s volatile trundle through history, the events that have unfolded so far this year — the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer for expressing moderate views, the instant deification of his killer by a substantial cross-section of the country’s "civil society," the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s most conspicuously military town — may have resolved that conflict. The attack on Sunday, May 22, by Taliban fighters on the Mehran naval air base in Karachi — its audacity, the foreknowledge it implied, the militaristic precision with which it was executed — carried a message: Pakistan is no longer a contested territory; it is now emphatically their turf. The reins of official power may not be in their hands yet, but the men with whom they rest dare not challenge the extremists’ conception of Pakistan. The battle for hearts and minds is over. Moderate Pakistan, if such a thing ever existed, is dead.

The Taliban insists that the attack on Mehran was payback for bin Laden’s "martyrdom." This means that it took them less than three weeks to select their target, identify its assets — the Orion P-3C aircraft — and map out its most vulnerable points of entry. The attacks occurred on a day when U.S. personnel, more valuable than the aircraft, were on-site. It is inconceivable that this attack could have materialized without insider support. It was always known that a substantial number of Pakistan’s armed forces — 30 percent, by some estimates — sympathized with the objectives of the forces they were fighting. The Pakistan Army will present Sunday’s clash as proof of its valor in an attempt to assuage Pakistanis outraged by its incompetence. But the world must now acknowledge the fact that Pakistan’s military is so deeply riven, its loyalties so thoroughly fractured, that it is incapable not only of defending Pakistan but is also dangerously unfit to be the custodian of its nuclear arsenal. It is time for Washington, Pakistan’s principal paymaster in the West, to pursue the option of comprehensively denuclearizing Pakistan.

It is often said that Pakistan’s decision to build the bomb was motivated by India’s explosion of its own device in 1974. But in reality Pakistan’s nuclear program was in response to the loss of East Pakistan in 1971. Founded as a safe haven for India’s Muslims, Pakistan ended up perpetrating, over nine bloodcurdling months in 1971, the single biggest genocide of Muslims since the birth of Islam, slaughtering 3 million Bengalis, displacing 30 million, and turning half a million women into sex slaves. Pakistan has never offered an official apology, but at the peak of their inhumanity Pakistan’s leaders persisted in presenting their country as a victim. As Ramachandra Guha documents in India After Gandhi, they described India’s acceptance of 10 million refugees and its subsequent intervention as an "Indo-Zionist plot against Islamic Pakistan." One influential newspaper in Pakistan assured its readers that Pakistan would re-emerge with "renewed determination to unfurl the banner of Islam over the Kafir land of India." At the United Nations in New York, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a feudal megalomaniac often unfairly accused of harboring democratic instincts, put on a spectacle, tearing up documents and pledging to "fight for 1,000 years as we have fought for 1,000 years in the past."

For a people conditioned to view in their country’s creation a celestial affirmation of their own superior evolution, the crushing humiliation of defeat was impossible to endure. In 1972, Bhutto assembled Pakistan’s top scientists and demanded a bomb in three years, according to British author Gordon Corera. He then flew to Tripoli, Libya, and, in the name of Islamic solidarity, persuaded Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi to fund the program. "Our resources are your resources," Qaddafi declared in 1974 to a Pakistani crowd gathered in an imposing sports stadium in Lahore dedicated in the Libyan leader’s name. The same year, Bhutto authorized a young Pakistani metallurgist working on nuclear plants in the Netherlands to steal sensitive information. The memory of Muslim dispossession during India’s partition haunted A.Q. Khan. "At one train station the soldiers pulled gold jewelry off of Muslim women and pulled the earrings out of their ears," he recalled decades later. He volunteered his services to Pakistan after witnessing the surrender of Pakistani troops in Dhaka. Pakistan’s acquisition of the bomb was an improvised effort, involving high-level theft of data and undetected procurement of material by flouting Western export controls.

Khan eventually toured the world with his blueprints, selling varying levels of nuclear know-how to Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria, among other rogue states. The United States tracked his activities for years, and in 2004, under increasing U.S. pressure, Pakistan placed Khan under house arrest. In a confession broadcast live on television, Khan claimed to be the sole salesman of Pakistan’s nuclear technology. If true, Khan’s confession raises this question: How could he have gone undetected? A report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service updated this year confirmed that al Qaeda had sought Khan’s assistance. If Khan’s statement was false, then who else was complicit in his nuclear trade? In 2005, a report by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction stated that al Qaeda "had established contact" with other Pakistani scientists to develop a nuclear weapon. A majority of Pakistan’s nuclear sites are located in areas now dominated by the Pakistani Taliban, and between 2007 and 2008, they launched spectacular attacks on installations in Sargodha, Kamra, and Wah.

Nuclear weapons have earned Pakistan the illusion of prestige, but not security. Yet Pakistan latches on to them. Why? There are two reasons.

The first is India. Pakistan’s sense of itself as the authentic home of India’s Muslims cannot be vindicated as long as India remains a secular state encompassing the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir. Pakistan has waged three wars to wrest Kashmir from India, but the experience of defeat led Islamabad to wage low-cost terror warfare. Pakistan has repeatedly dispatched highly trained mobile teams to attack high-profile Indian targets — from the attack on India’s Parliament in 2001 to the bombing of its embassy in Afghanistan in 2008 and the siege of Mumbai the same year — but India’s ability to retaliate, even with surgical strikes on terrorist headquarters, is severely restricted by the threat of an all-out nuclear war. The nuclear weapons shield Pakistan from accountability.

The second reason is aid. Pakistan’s ruling elite believes that America, terrified by the potential cost of dealing with nuclear Pakistan’s failure, will always pay the price for its survival. It’s an extraordinary pattern: Pakistan commits a crime, threatens instability, evades prosecution, and receives a bribe. But it cannot be sustained.

Khan once boasted about bestowing nuclear prestige on a country "where we can’t even make a bicycle chain." Take away those nuclear weapons and Pakistan is a veritable basket case. It has no manufacturing base, and in the first four months of 2011 it managed to attract all of $50 million in equity investment — $650 million less than Bangladesh managed in the depression year of 2009. Pakistan would benefit in more meaningful ways if it channeled its India obsession into energizing its economy.

Washington has often rushed to assuage Islamabad that it is not after Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But measured against the very real possibility that they may end up in the hands of extremists, U.S. intervention would serve to help rather than harm Pakistan.

The best way to rid Pakistan of its nuclear arsenal, as the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens has argued, is for Washington to offer to buy it. In return, Washington should offer Islamabad trade privileges and security guarantees — even against India. Pakistan’s history of selling its nuclear secrets to the highest bidders may, ironically, hold the key to expropriating its nuclear weapons. If Kim Jong Il can identify, isolate, and cultivate the right individuals, why can’t the world’s sole remaining superpower?

If incentives fail to move the generals in Rawalpindi, then Washington must be prepared to threaten Pakistan with isolation through U.N. mechanisms, including travel bans on its military leaders. Finally, Pakistan must be made to understand the cost of nuclear warfare. If a single nuclear warhead falls into the wrong hands — or is pressed into service by the right hands — there will be no Pakistan. Only denuclearization can now save Pakistan from itself — and the world from Pakistan.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.

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