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The real threat from nuclear Pakistan

August 23, 2012 21:29 IST

India needs to be aware of the potentially catastrophic implications of the collapse of governing authority in Pakistan. A boost to fundamentalist forces in India's neighbourhood will have some serious consequences for the utility of nuclear deterrence in the subcontinent, says Harsh V Pant.

Pakistan's giant aeronautical complex at Kamra came under attack from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan last week. The Minhas base, in the town of Kamra, houses the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, the manufacturing division of the air force.

It builds French-designed Mirage fighter planes and, with Chinese support, JF-17 fighter jets. This latest attack on the air base came amidst reports that the Pakistani military was preparing for a new military operation in the restive tribal region of North Waziristan.

What have been particular troubling are the reports that the base contains components of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons programme, although the Pakistani government was categorical in its denial. But the reassurance had to come from Washington that the nuclear arsenal in Pakistan remains safe.

The world doesn't really believe anything that comes out of Islamabad anymore. According to the most recent estimates by US intelligence, Pakistan has doubled its nuclear stockpile over the last few years with the nation's arsenal now totalling more than 100 deployed weapons.

Pakistan is now ahead of India in the production of uranium and plutonium for bombs and development of delivery weapons. It is now producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.

Pakistan will soon be the world's fourth largest nuclear weapon State ahead of France and Britain and behind only the US, Russia and China. It is investing heavily in plutonium production capacity with work reportedly underway on a fourth plutonium-producing reactor at the Khushab nuclear complex.

The danger is that this expansion is happening at a time of great internal turmoil in the country and the rise in religious extremism. The fears of proliferation and possible terrorist attempts to seize nuclear materials are real and cannot be brushed aside.

Along with the defeat of Al Qaeda, the Obama administration's Afghan War Review had mentioned Pakistan's nuclear security as one of the two long-term strategy objectives in Af-Pak. In State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, concerns about the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear material were evident.

As the Obama administration was starting to review its Af-Pak policy, an intelligence report suggested that that while Pakistan's weapons were well secured, there was deep, continuing concern about 'insider access,' meaning elements in the military or intelligence services.

The then US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, wrote in a separate document that 'our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GOP (Government of Pakistan) facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.'

But any attempt by the US to force Pakistan on the nuclear issue will only generate further suspicion that the US favours India and wants to control Pakistan's nuclear weapons. This, despite the fact that throughout the Cold War years, it was Washington that was critical in giving a boost to Pakistani nuclear programme by wilfully turning a blind eye to nuclear developments in the country.

Pakistan already has more than enough nuclear weapons for an effective deterrent against India. One hundred and ten odd nuclear weapons will not make Pakistan's nuclear deterrent more effective as compared to a deterrent based on 60 odd weapons. Nuclear deterrence doesn't work like that. The higher number will just be used by the military to enhance its prestige by claiming that Pakistan is ahead of India, at least in this realm.

For long, the US and the West have viewed nuclear weapons in South Asia with dread because of the possibility that a conventional war between India and Pakistan might escalate into a nuclear one. Former US president Bill Clinton called the Kashmir conflict 'the most dangerous flashpoint on earth' precisely because of this fear of a nuclear holocaust in the Indian subcontinent.

Indian and Pakistani officials, on the other hand, have continued to argue that just as the threat of mutual assured destruction resulted in a 'hot peace' between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, nuclear weapons in South Asia will also have a stabilising impact.

They point out the fact that despite several provocations, India and Pakistan have behaved 'rationally' during various crises by keeping their conflicts limited and avoiding escalation. But since September 11, 2001, the nature of the problem for the West has changed in so far as the threat is now more of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal being used against the West by radical Islamists if they can lay their hands on it.

There is little hope that the rational actor model on which classical nuclear deterrence theory is based would apply as much to militant Islamist groups as it would to the Pakistani government. The present turmoil in Pakistan has once again raised concerns about the safety, security and command and control of its nuclear stockpile.

The command and control arrangements continue to be beset with some fundamental vulnerabilities that underline the reluctance of the Pakistani military to cede control over the nation's nuclear assets to civilian leaders. Moreover, senior civilian and military officials responsible for these weapons have a problematic track record in maintaining close control over them.

The US has suggested that there are contingency plans in place to deal with the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militant groups, but it remains far from clear as to what exactly the US would be able to do if such an eventuality arose.

This poses a serious challenge to the Indian credible minimum deterrent nuclear posture. While India has little to worry about Pakistan's desire to have more than 100 nuclear warheads, the possibility of leakage from the State to non-State actors is a serious threat as it will undermine India's ability to maintain peace in the region. A dangerous new nuclear matrix is emerging in the region.

India needs to be aware of the potentially catastrophic implications of the collapse of governing authority in Pakistan. A boost to fundamentalist forces in India's neighbourhood will have some serious consequences for the utility of nuclear deterrence in the subcontinent.

Irrespective of India's other problems with Pakistan, Indian decision-makers had little doubt so far in trusting that their Pakistani counterparts would take rational decisions in so far as the use of nuclear weapons was concerned. That assumption might soon need revisiting if the present trends in Pakistan continue for much longer.

The present turmoil in Pakistan and all its attendant consequences in the nuclear realm point to the long-term costs of short-sighted policies -- the politics of proliferation -- followed by the West in countering proliferation.

Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London.

Harsh V Pant