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Next India-Pak crisis may escalate to N-levels: Expert
Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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June 25, 2008 12:00 IST

Stephen P Cohen, noted South Asia expert, who is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, and dealt with the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme during his stint in the Reagan administration's Policy Planning Council in the State Department, has warned that "there is a small but real possibility of the next India-Pakistan crisis escalating to nuclear levels."

Cohen, testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs' Subcommittee on International Security on the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the US-Pakistan strategic relationship, predicted that "Pakistan may decide, as a matter of state policy, to extend a nuclear umbrella -- or engage in nuclear sharing -- with one of more Middle East states, especially if Iran acquires a nuclear device."

In enumerating the challenges to American policy that Pakistan's nuclear capabilities present, he said, "There is a hard-to-quantify risk of nuclear theft," and added, "Pakistan has a home-grown personnel reliability programme, but even this could be circumvented in a determined conspiracy."

Cohen, who has visited Pakistan regularly since 1977 and written to books on Pakistan -- The Pakistan Army and The Idea of Pakistan, said, "There is some small chance that should Pakistan unravel, that its nuclear assets will be seized by remnant elements of the army for political, strategic, or personal purposes."

"While nuclear proliferation or nuclear theft should not be the sole, or even determining element in our relationship with Pakistan, some of these are frightening scenarios," he said.

"Even the relatively benign possibility of Pakistan providing a deterrent force to states that feel threatened by Iran raises the possibility of a fresh round of near-nuclear crises in the Middle East, perhaps involving Israel," he added.

"Pakistan used to be an important state because of its assets, but it is now important because of its problems," Cohen said.

He said the moderate Muslim state of the past has now "become virulently anti-American, it was the worst proliferators of advanced nuclear and missile technology and it continues to harbor -- partially involuntarily -- extremists and terrorists whose dedicated mission is to attack the United States."

Cohen said that in the particular case of nuclear security, the US should go beyond simply encouraging better safeguards.

"Within the limits of American law," he noted, "we are providing technologies to Pakistan to help secure their systems and it may be that China has also done so."

But Cohen argued, "Beyond this, the US should also consider a criteria-based nuclear 'deal' with Pakistan as a way of encouraging them to limit and secure their existing nuclear weapons."

He said, "Pakistan could receive support for its civilian nuclear program in exchange for greater assurances regarding the security of its nuclear assets and technology, and transparency regarding past leakages."

Cohen also called for the US to "marginally increase our engagement in India-Pakistan relations," because the Pakistani army still regards "India as its main threat, and nuclear weapons as its main defense."

Thus, he argued, "we need to address their chief incentive to acquire more and bigger nuclear weapons."

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