Bruce Riedel, a prominent South Asia expert and an advisor to the Obama administration, has captured anxieties about Pakistan in one sentence: "It has more terrorists per square mile than anyplace else on earth, and it has a nuclear weapons program that is growing faster than anyplace else on earth."
As the world marks the 64th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, it is timely to reflect on nuclear risk in today's proliferated world. Much of that attention, rightly or wrongly, has been focused on India's westerly neighbour. In a recent piece in the U.S. journal The National Interest, Riedel sketched out a vision of the challenges that would come if the Pakistani state were overthrown by Islamist forces, something he considers a real possibility although still unlikely.
Others, most notably counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, have expressed concern that the Pakistani state might collapse under onslaught from multiple non-state forces. Kilcullen famously predicted in March of this year, "We're now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state."
Much of this fear is misplaced, though that certainly does not mean policymakers in Islamabad, Delhi, or Washington should be complacent. With September only a few weeks away, it appears as if Pakistan will outlive Kilcullen's worst fears. The Pakistan Army has shown much greater determination in military operations along its northwest border than most would have predicted. For all the talk of an Islamist takeover, Pakistani voters appear not to have received the memo.
At no point have more than eleven percent of poll-goers cast their ballots for Islamist parties, the high water mark in 2002. There is considerable discussion of radicalization of the Pakistani officer corps, a concern made more acute now as the generation of officers recruited during the conservative Zia years is reaching general officer level. Such radicals might attempt to launch a coup from below, or so the fear goes.
These concerns ignore the fact that Pakistan has had three moderate Army chiefs in succession since 1996: Jehangir Karamat, Pervez Musharraf, and Ashfaq Kayani. Army chiefs do not like being overthrown by junior officers, and as a result Pakistani army chiefs closely scrutinise the files of officers being promoted, particularly of those appointed to sensitive positions.
Critics aver, moreover, that Pakistan has a demonstrable track record of nuclear irresponsibility. This is a state that allowed A. Q. Khan to carry out illicit nuclear commerce for almost fifteen years. This is a state that couldn't prevent nuclear experts Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed from traveling to Afghanistan to talk to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2001 about nuclear technology. While Pakistan has much to answer for from its past nuclear conduct, since 1999 it has undertaken sweeping reforms of how it controls and secures its nuclear arsenal
In 1999, Pakistan established a Strategic Plans Division and charged it with carrying out nuclear planning as well as protecting the arsenal from insider and outsider threats. According to statements by serving and retired Pakistani officials, it has instituted personnel reliability programmes to conduct background investigations and monitor scientists and military personnel involved in strategic programmes.
Following the revelation of Mahmood and Majeed's trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan increased scrutiny of retired personnel as well. It has deployed "code locks" on nuclear devices, which Pakistani officials say are the functional equivalent to permissive action links. It has required that two or three men be involved in all important situations involving the handling of nuclear devices.
Such a "two-man" rule is designed to complicate the ability of an insider threat to abuse his access for nefarious purpose. According to a variety of public assessments, Pakistan's nuclear warheads are stored separately from delivery vehicles, with triggers separate from their fissile material cores. The Strategic Plans Division has a security division of 8,000-10,000 personnel charged with providing protection to Pakistan's strategic assets during peacetime.
A. Q. Khan's dismissal in 2001 was in part the result of increasing clashes with the Strategic Plans Division, which sought to gain greater visibility on his activities and exert greater control on his movements. Pakistan, then, has shown considerable seriousness in executing its nuclear security mission and has been remarkably transparent about its efforts in order to assuage growing global concerns. (Ironically, because of less international concern, India has revealed almost nothing about its own arrangements to secure its arsenal.)
The picture is not entirely rosy. The threat that zealots could infiltrate the Pakistani programme is impossible to eliminate, no matter what reliability programmes are in place. Any vetting system can fail. Further, in the event of conflict, Pakistan will likely mobilize its weapons and remove them from the fixed security of peacetime locations.
Once weapons are mated to delivery vehicles--something that likely would only happen in the event of a serious Indo-Pakistani conventional conflict--it is unclear whether Pakistan's National Command Authority still has technical control of weapons in the field. While procedurally, commanders of nuclear units are supposed to wait for orders from Pakistani leadership, the evidence is mixed as to whether they retain the technical capability to launch without such orders. All things being equal, it is easier to secure fewer weapons than it is to secure a larger arsenal. Pakistan is rapidly expanding its ability to produce fissile material, both through the enrichment of uranium and the production of plutonium.
India is not just a passive recipient of Pakistan's decisions. Pakistan explicitly factors Indian actions into its nuclear force plans. Indian scientists have made progress in recent years on missile defence systems as well as improving the accuracy of India's ballistic missiles. In both areas, an outsider is left to wonder whether the technocrats are operating with clear guidance from political authorities. Why does India need more accurate ballistic missiles if it never will be the first to use nuclear weapons?
Accuracy is troublesome for nuclear stability because it makes it easier to consider attempts to disarm your adversary with a first strike. There may be marginal military utility in having more precise ballistic missiles, but it seems like that benefit will be more than obviated by the disadvantages. Pakistani nuclear planners have always been skeptical of India's no-firstuse pledge and are constantly on the lookout for evidence that it is hollow. If they come to believe that Indian first use is likely, they may very well increase the size and readiness of the arsenal, increasing the risks that things could get out of hand in a crisis.
On missile defence, there may be very good strategic rationales for a limited missile defence deployment to protect against launches by rogue commanders or to protect Indian leadership (and hence prevent any effort at a decapitation strike). But it is unclear to outsiders if Indian missile defences are designed for limited purposes or are perhaps part of a more ambitious effort.
In the coming decade, it seems likely that Pakistan will be able to easily neutralize any Indian missile defence shield by adding more nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles, developing cruise missiles that fly under such a shield, or a variety of other technical countermeasures.
If India's missile defence objectives are limited, the easiest way to assuage Pakistani fears would be to articulate a public vision of how missile defences fit into India's strategic framework and privately discuss the matter with the Pakistanis.
There are many lessons from the series of poor nuclear decisions that the United States and the Soviet Union made during the Cold War, but one of the most important is not to let the technicians drive policy. To paraphrase General K. Sundarji, just because the West made fools of themselves doesn't mean others need to make the same mistakes.
The writer is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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