Shadow Government

Pakistan and the Nuclear Nightmare

The Washington Post has revealed the intense concern of the U.S. intelligence community about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. In addition to gaps in U.S. information about nuclear weapons storage and safeguards, American analysts are worried about the risk of terrorist attacks against nuclear facilities in Pakistan as well as the risk that individual Pakistani nuclear ...

Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

The Washington Post has revealed the intense concern of the U.S. intelligence community about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. In addition to gaps in U.S. information about nuclear weapons storage and safeguards, American analysts are worried about the risk of terrorist attacks against nuclear facilities in Pakistan as well as the risk that individual Pakistani nuclear weapons handlers could go rogue in ways that endanger unified national control over these weapons of mass destruction.

These concerns raise a wider question for a U.S. national security establishment whose worst nightmares include the collapse of the Pakistani state — with all its implications for empowerment of terrorists, a regional explosion of violent extremism, war with India, and loss of control over the country’s nuclear weapons. That larger question is: Does Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal promote the country’s unity or its disaggregation?

This is a complicated puzzle, in part because nuclear war in South Asia may be more likely as long as nuclear weapons help hold Pakistan together and embolden its military leaders to pursue foreign adventures under the nuclear umbrella. So if we argue that nuclear weapons help maintain Pakistan’s integrity as a state — by empowering and cohering the Pakistani Army — they may at the same time undermine regional stability and security by making regional war more likely.

As South Asia scholar Christine Fair of Georgetown University has argued, the Pakistani military’s sponsorship of "jihad under the nuclear umbrella" has gravely undermined the security of Pakistan’s neighborhood — making possible war with India over Kargil in 1999, the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, and Pakistan’s ongoing support for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other violent extremists.

Moreover, Pakistan’s proliferation of nuclear technologies has seeded extra-regional instability by boosting "rogue state" nuclear weapons programs as far afield as North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Syria. Worryingly, rather than pursuing a policy of minimal deterrence along Indian lines, Pakistan’s military leaders are banking on the future benefits of nuclear weapons by overseeing the proportionately biggest nuclear buildup of any power, developing tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons, and dispersing the nuclear arsenal to ensure its survivability in the event of attack by either the United States or India. (Note that most Pakistanis identify the United States, not India, as their country’s primary adversary, despite an alliance dating to 1954 and nearly $30 billion in American assistance since 2001.)

The nuclear arsenal sustains Pakistan’s unbalanced internal power structure, underwriting Army dominance over elected politicians and neutering civilian control of national security policy; civilian leaders have no practical authority over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Whether one believes the arsenal’s governance implications generate stability or instability within Pakistan depends on whether one believes that Army domination of the country is a stabilizing or destabilizing factor.

A similarly split opinion derives from whether one deems the Pakistan Army the country’s most competent institution and therefore the best steward of weapons whose fall into the wrong hands could lead to global crisis — or whether one views the Army’s history of reckless risk-taking, from sponsoring terrorist attacks against the United States and India to launching multiple wars against India that it had no hope of winning, as a flashing "DANGER" sign suggesting that nuclear weapons are far more likely to be used "rationally" by the armed forces in pursuit of Pakistan’s traditional policies of keeping its neighbors off balance.

There is no question that the seizure of power by a radicalized group of generals with a revolutionary anti-Indian, anti-American, and social-transformation agenda within Pakistan becomes a far more dangerous scenario in the context of nuclear weapons. Similarly, the geographical dispersal of the country’s nuclear arsenal and the relatively low level of authority a battlefield commander would require to employ tactical nuclear weapons raise the risk of their use outside the chain of command.

This also raises the risk that the Pakistani Taliban, even if it cannot seize the commanding heights of state institutions, could seize either by force or through infiltration a nuclear warhead at an individual installation and use it to hold the country — and the world — to ransom. American intelligence analysts covering Pakistan will continue to lose sleep for a long time to come.

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