The South Asia Channel
Duck and Cover in Pakistan
Pakistan’s rapid nuclearization is a worrisome development. U.S. aid must impose strong conditions to discourage nuclear expansion.
A new joint report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center argues that Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and is far outpacing India, its longtime archrival, in the development of nuclear warheads. The report asserts that “Pakistan has the capability to produce perhaps 20 nuclear warheads annually, whereas India appears to be producing about five warheads annually.” Within five to ten years, the report claims, Pakistan could possess as much as 350 nuclear weapons. This is an alarming assessment of Pakistan’s dangerous nuclearization, however accurate, which enables the country to retain the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile, after the United States and Russia, within a decade.
Pakistan’s precipitous nuclearization seems to be following the classic “more maybe better” approach, a notion argued by Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz in their book about the spread of nuclear weapons, in which they contend that new nuclear states will use their acquired capabilities to deter threats and maintain peace. Pakistan’s expanding nuclear umbrella epitomizes that dangerous “more maybe better” concept, as the country steadily enlarges its atomic arsenal, by testing varieties of nuclear devices, including ballistic missiles, both land- and sea-based, and developing large-scale nuclear delivery systems. In this classic security dilemma, both Pakistan and India (to an extent) have been following a nuke-for-nuke approach for more than a decade. Presently, Pakistan is estimated to possess 120 nuclear warheads and operates four plutonium production reactors, whereas India operates one plutonium reactor and has 100 warheads. Additionally, as the Carnegie/Stimson report outlines, Pakistan’s total defense spending last year was around $11 billion, or 4.5 percent of its GDP, and while there is no accurate information on Pakistan’s nuclear budget, estimates indicate the country’s annual nuclear expenditure to be between $2-3 billion.
Undoubtedly, India’s nuclearization after its first nuclear test in 1974 enthused Pakistan to develop its own nuclear program. Subsequently, India’s rapid militarization coupled with its rising economic influence only furthered Pakistan’s state of paranoia to also engage in large-scale arms import, including from the United States. But while Pakistan’s speedy nuclearization is undeniably meant to overcompensate for fears about India’s growing conventional acquisitions, there are also other factors that appear to play an important role in Pakistan’s nuclear expansion.
Chief among them is that Pakistan’s security apparatus, particularly the army, which manages the nuclear program views the program as a success. The army thinks that Pakistan’s nukes have greatly minimized India’s proclivity to use its superior conventional military strength. There are several instances that suggest India’s disinclination to engage in greater military confrontation with Pakistan, including the 1999 Kargil war and India’s tepid response to the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Each time, Pakistan seemed to have threatened the use of nukes to deter any Indian incursion into Pakistan. Hence, Pakistan’s steep nuclearization has supposedly provided a credible minimal deterrence against the alleged India-centric threat, though it has not made the state safe.
Secondly, in Pakistan’s view, the United States has become a critical factor that drives its dangerous nuclearization. By engaging in its own calculus of irrationality, Pakistan’s army thinks more nukes significantly heightens its survivability in the event of an attack, should it occur. On its part, concerns about Pakistan’s loose nukes have long loomed large among U.S. policymakers. For example, in late 2011, President Barack Obama reportedly told his staff that Pakistan could “disintegrate,” setting off a scramble for its weapons and that Pakistan is his “biggest single national security concern.” Undeniably, Pakistani generals, who perhaps see the United States rather than India posing a tangible threat to its nuclear security, take such anxieties seriously. This adds to Pakistan army’s belief that not only is Pakistan’s nuclear program under strict U.S. surveillance, but that the United States is also actively working to destabilize or disarm it.
More importantly, such wariness intensifies Pakistan’s misguided state of paranoia, making it ever more crucial to ensure that those nukes remain in stable and reliable hands. For starters, Pakistani generals believe that complete destruction or disarmament of their nukes is not possible for the United States. Given the complex design of Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, where warheads and the delivery vehicles are stored separately and are mobile, the idea of finding and neutralizing every single nuke would seem rather far-fetched. However, in an unlikely scenario where every single one of Pakistani nukes were found and disarmed, Pakistan would still maintain the nuclear know-how and capacity to produce more. For the United States, the stakes are higher, particularly because as militancy rankles across Pakistan, the possibility of loose nukes ending up in the hands of nefarious actors cannot be ruled out. In Foreign Policy’s recent Failed States Index, Pakistan was ranked at number 13, placing the country in the “critical” category with other fragile or failing states with important consequences. There are at least three ways the United States can avoid such an occurrence.
First, the United States should pressure both Pakistan and India to establish direct military-to-military contact. Ensuring Pakistan’s nuclear security requires creating a steady communication channel between the armed forces of the two countries and establishing military liaison teams to facilitate interaction at both strategic and tactical level. There is little doubt that Pakistan’s civilian authorities neither wields influence nor command greater authority in nuclear matters, so ensuring all means of direct communication between Pakistani and Indian militaries can therefore prove indispensable.
Second, the need for more nuclear diplomacy in a period of crisis cannot be over-emphasized. If strategic communication between Pakistan and India falters at a crisis point, communication through a mutually acceptable third-party is going to be key to prevent escalation. Despite the U.S.-Pakistan trust deficit, as well as several past episodes that have impacted the criticality of American diplomacy as an honest conciliator in Pakistani mindset, the United States remains the most important actor to serve as a crisis mediator between the two countries.
Third, the United States should impose strict conditions and benchmarks on its security and non-security assistance to Pakistan. Since 2002, Pakistan has received a staggering $30 billion in direct U.S. security and non-security assistance in return for counterterrorism cooperation, and, importantly, to give the United States some room to keep a check over Pakistan’s nukes. However, U.S. assistance has yielded little tangible results in persuading Pakistan to cease its longstanding support to insurgent groups. Instead, U.S. support has increasingly incentivized Pakistan to create a sense of insecurity around its nuclear weapons, mainly because of the proliferation of militant groups that Pakistan itself has propped up. Additionally, as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Pakistan has a record of nuclear proliferation and has transferred weapons technology to such states as Iran, North Korea, and Libya. Given that U.S. support has done little over the years to alter Pakistan’s duplicitous conduct, the U.S. should stop providing Pakistan blank checks and begin to impose strong conditions on its future support, without de-linking security from non-security assistance. Doing so could ensure that billions of dollars in U.S. assistance to Pakistan is used for the purpose it is given and is not wasted on Pakistan building more nuclear weapons.
Pakistan’s ever-expanding nuclear umbrella enjoys significant public support and has been an integral part of the discourse in Pakistan for over three decades. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s then-prime minister who started the nuclear program in 1972, once famously stated that Pakistan would acquire the nuclear weapon even if the Pakistani people had to eat grass. Since then, every successive Pakistani government has sought to build a positive image of the country’s tottering atomic weapons, often by connecting it to Pakistan’s identity and pride. Looking ahead, Pakistan is likely to rely ever more on its nuclear weapons to respond to its India-centric insecurities, however unfounded. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s rapid nuclearization is a worrisome development and while there are reasons to continue U.S. support to Pakistan, the United States must make the provision of its security and non-security assistance dependent on Pakistan delivering on specific benchmarks.
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