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Why India should worry about the turmoil in Pakistan

October 27, 2009 15:01 IST

India needs to be aware of the potentially catastrophic implications of the collapse of governing authority in Pakistan and the possibility of its nuclear assets falloing in the wrong hands, writes Harsh V Pant.

A government unable to control large parts of its territory, a military in disarray, loss of control over the nuclear assets, radical Islamists intent on acquiring WMDs -- that's the stuff nightmares are made of, at least for the West. And Pakistan's current turmoil is causing jitters around the world precisely because the nightmarish scenario evoked above might just come to pass as the Talibanisation of the country drags it to the brink of collapse.

Last week a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint outside the maximum security Pakistan Aeronautical Complex reportedly linked to Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme at Kamra near Islamabad renewing concerns about the safety and security of its nuclear arsenal. This was the second attack on the base since 2007 when a similar attempt was made. Other attacks on Pakistan's nuclear weapons facilities include an attack on the nuclear missile storage facility in Sargodha in November 2007 and an attack in August 2008 on the armament complex at the Wah cantonment, one of Pakistan's main nuclear weapons assembly sites.

US President Barack Obama has made it clear that he remains gravely concerned about Pakistan though he continues to project confidence that Pakistan's nuclear weapons would not fall to the militants. Even Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari sometime back had raised the spectre of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban albeit adding the caveat that nukes are safe as of now.

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. Bill Clinton called the Kashmir conflict 'the most dangerous flashpoint on earth' precisely because of this fear of a nuclear holocaust in the Indian sub-continent.

The 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 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's little hope that the rational actor model on which classical nuclear deterrence theory is based would apply as much to the Islamist terrorist groups as it would to the Pakistani government. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there were suggestions that the US had explicitly sought guarantees from the Pakistan government that its nuclear arsenal was safe and had also assured India of its security.

The present turmoil in Pakistan has once again raised concerns about the safety, security and command and control of its nuclear stockpile. Though Pakistan's government is always quick to dismiss media reports that its nuclear weapons are in danger of falling into wrong hands as "inspired" and stresses that Pakistan provides the highest level of institutionalised protection to its strategic assets, the credibility of such claims remains open to question.

Instituted in 2000, Pakistan's nuclear command and control arrangements are centred on the National Command Authority which comprises of the Employment Control Committee, the Development Control Committee and the Strategic Plans Division and only a small group of military officials apparently have access to the country's nuclear assets. However, these 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 the civilian leaders. It is instructive to note that of all the major nuclear states in world, Pakistan is the only country where the nuclear button is in the hands of the military. It is not at all comforting when former civilian leaders including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif make it clear that even at the height of various crises, the Pakistani military kept the civilian authorities out of the decision-making loop on the crucial issue of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, senior civilian and military officials responsible for these weapons have a problematic track-record in maintaining close control over them. A Q Khan was the head of the Pakistani nuclear program (and a veritable national hero) but was instrumental in making Pakistan the centre of the biggest nuclear proliferation network by leaking technology to states far and wide including Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistani nuclear scientists have even travelled to Afghanistan at the behest of Osama bin Laden.

While it is true that Pakistani military has been a very professional and perhaps the only the cohesive force in the country even today, it is not clear if it would be able to continue to exert its control over the nation's nuclear assets if the militants continue to gain ground in the absence of institutionalised safeguards. The military has also become deeply demoralised, reflected in the large number of soldiers preferring to surrender to the militants rather than fighting. There are growing signs of fraying loyalties in the Pakistani army underlining the danger to its cohesiveness. The growing 'Islamisation' of the younger generation of Pakistani military officers is well-recorded and given the close links between the Pakistani military and intelligence services and the terrorist groups fighting in Kashmir and the Taliban, it is not far-fetched to assume that there is a real danger of elements within Pakistan's military-intelligence complex colluding with radical Islamist groups.

Pakistan has taken US help after 9/11 in designing its system of controls for its nuclear arsenal and prevention of thefts. The US has reportedly spent about $100 million (about Rs 500 crore) in helping Pakistan secure its nuclear arsenal. Though some reports have suggested that the US had provided Pakistan with missile launch code system in order to prevent unauthorised use of nuclear missiles, Pakistan has denied that it has either sought or received any technical assistance from the US. The exact number of Pakistani nuclear weapons as well as the location of its nuclear storage and deployment facilities remains a closely-guarded secret. Pakistan has strongly resisted US attempts to garner more information about these facilities for fear that the US would not hesitate to target and/or physically remove them in case there emerges a real threat to Pakistan's nuclear assets.

It is believed that Pakistan relies on separating the fissile core from the weapon thus ensuring that a usable weapon doesn't fall easily into wrong hands. But it would take little time for the command and control network to collapse if Pakistan slides towards greater anarchy and then sympathisers of radical Islamists within Pakistani military and intelligence agencies helping the terrorist groups in acquiring the wherewithal of a nuclear weapon becomes a real possibility.

Throughout the Cold War years, it was viewed as politically prudent in the West and especially in the US to ignore Pakistan's drive towards nuclear acquisition as Pakistan was seen as an important ally of the West in countering the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Nuclear proliferation has never been a first order priority for the US when it comes to Pakistan. Various US governments have continued to go easy on the Pakistani military that, despite controlling the nation's nuclear programme, claimed that it had no knowledge of the A Q Khan network. For the US, the role of Pakistani military is critical in fighting Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost as the Pakistani military seems unable and unwilling to take on the Islamist forces gathering momentum within the Pakistani territory on the one hand while on the other, the nation's nuclear weapons seem within reach of the extremist forces. The US has suggested that there are contingency plans in place to deal with the possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups but it remains far from clear as to what exactly the US would be able to do if such an eventuality arose.

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 sub-continent. 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 to be revisited if the present trends in Pakistan continue for much longer.

Harsh Pant teaches in King's College, London and is presently a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Harsh V Pant