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Home > India > News > Report

'Islamists aren't on verge of major electoral victory'

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | February 19, 2008 02:45 IST
Last Updated: February 20, 2008 02:40 IST


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Coverage: Pakistan Votes

Bruce Riedel recently joined The Brookings Institution as Senior Fellow, on the back of his expertise as an expert on the Middle East and South Asia, and more than three decades as a policymaking veteran in regional diplomacy and counter-terrorism in the government.

He believes an Islamist takeover of Pakistan, and consequently Islamist control over that country's nuclear weapons arsenal, is a non-issue even though jihadis have become increasingly dangerous. It is more realistic, he says, to be concerned about a weapon or two being spirited away by military personnel sympathetic to the jihadi cause, and passed on by them into a terrorist group.

Against the backdrop of reports that administration and Congressional circles are considering unilateral US action to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons, Riedel believes any such pre-emptive strike would be highly counter-productive; it could, he says, make a bad situation infinitely worse.

Riedel speaks on the back of quantifiable experience: For much of his government career, he has served with the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the Department of State and the Department of Defence.

He has served the past three Presidential administrations -- those of George H W Bush and Bill Clintons two terms on the National Security Council. In this capacity, he was a central player during the 1999 Kargil crisis that put nuclear-armed India and Pakistan in a confrontational posture.

He was the only official to sit in on the July 4, 1999 meeting between then President Clinton and then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was given a stern warning to immediately withdraw Pakistani military forces from Kargil or face Washington's wrath. Here are some excerpts from the interview with Riedel:

At Brookings the other day, you were dismissive of the belief that Pakistan is on the verge of being taken over by Islamists who will have access to the country's nuclear weapons. Why do you believe such a scenario is untenable?

The notion that Pakistan as a whole could fall into the hands of jihadis and that you could have an Islamicized State, is a very remote possibility. This is more so because there is no indication to believe that the Islamists are on the verge of any major electoral victory and that they are going to be marching on Islamabad, although there is no denying that they have become increasingly dangerous.

A more realistic fear to be concerned about is that a single weapon or two weapons may be secreted by sympathizers in the military into the hands of a terrorist group. In which case, we might not know that this had happened until too late.
That's a fear I think we ought to be serious about, and the best way to deal with that is to have civilian oversight over the military's whetting process or the whole apparatus of nuclear control.

Why is such a scenario, of military personnel smuggling a nuclear weapon or two into extremist hands, feasible?

Because, while on paper, everything indicates that Pakistan had an effective and impressive mechanism -- command and control and apparatus like that -- to prevent such a scenario from happening, the reality is that we've seen that in the past few months the security services have been clearly penetrated by extremists.

In recent months the attacks we have been seeing, where army bases have been targeted, clearly show that many of them may have been inside jobs and that indicates there is a problem here.

So, as I said, the best solution to deal with this problem in terms of ensuring the security of the nuclear arsenal is to have civilian oversight over these nuclear weapons security without it being solely in the hands of the military.

Media outlets, especially The New York Times, have in recent times highlighted stories that people in the administration believe some sort of US military action to secure Pakistan's arsenal from falling into the hands of terrorists is necessary. You said during the Brookings conference recently that such people are living in a fantasy world. Why do you believe a pre-emptive strike is a preposterous idea?

For one thing, it just couldn't be done. We don't know where they are, and how we are going to secure them, and secondly, raising the spectre of an American attack on Pakistan only creates a worse situation and legitimately makes Pakistanis wonder about what America's intentions are.

So, it would be one of the most dangerous things the United States could ever do, because it really would make a bad situation even worse.

Reports say the US has for some time now been helping Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons arsenal not just through funding, but by providing special equipment to help in command and control and security.

I believe the United States has wisely tried to impart some of its experience and expertise in this area to Pakistan. I think it has also done it with India as well. But that doesn't mean we are in a position to secure the weapons on our own. Pakistani people are not stupid. They are not going to tell a foreign power where the crown jewels are.

What can the US do and importantly, what should the US do, to ward off the danger of nuclear weapons, singly or collectively, getting into terrorist hands?

I think the United States should first and foremost support the restoration of democracy and an end to a military dictatorship. It should then support a normal civil-military relationship with Pakistan, where a civilian elected government has ultimate oversight over the nuclear weapons program in every respect -- its control, its security, its use, its deployment, its proliferation.

That is the best way to get a program that is under the control of legitimately elected people. That is the only way the United States could see this program be as secure as we obviously would want it to be.

You have consistently argued that if there is a credible election in Pakistan, and the civilian government that comes to power is able to function while the military returns to its barracks and works with the government, the United States should seriously rethink its strategy towards Pakistan. You suggest that the US should go beyond massive infusion of military aid, and actively help rebuild Pakistan's institutions, and engage in social development in areas of education, etc.

Exactly! And, in this regard, as you know, Senator (Joe) Biden (chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) has proposed a new policy toward Pakistan, including the interesting idea of a multi-year, multi-billion project to try and build some of these institutions and, as an incentive, not subject them to annual review by the Congress.

Not having this annual review may be unconstitutional, but this is certainly an interesting idea to be considered. Because, in terms of military assistance, why should we be providing F-16s to the Pakistan Air Force, because they are not weapons that can be used to fight Al Qaeda [Images] or Taliban?

The military assistance we provide Pakistan should be for fighting the extremists -- for counterinsurgency, for counter-terrorism, and not for fighting a conventional war.

The United States should support a process of trying to end the muscularity in terms of the tensions between India and Pakistan, and instead try to help in increasing the chances of an Indo-Pakistan settlement of their differences.







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