Going public with worries about Pakistan’s crown jewels

When two of America’s most respected newspapers report that senior US government officials are worrying about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons you should take note. Not because of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets but because US government officials are worrying about it publicly and now.

What’s the message in the bottle?

When two of America’s most respected newspapers report that senior US government officials are worrying about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons you should take note. Not because of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets but because US government officials are worrying about it publicly and now. What’s new about worries over the custodial security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? So it’s either a case of American officials buying insurance against public criticism (“intelligence failure!”) should the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets be compromised. Or, an attempt to manage the policy dissonance arising from tolerating a known proliferator but threatening Iran with a preventive war. Or, as is more likely, an instance of United States is using its newspapers to send out a signal. What is the signal and who is it meant for?

Let’s proceed with the hypothesis that there are at least two players on the Pakistani side—the men who control Pakistan’s nuclear weapons (Musharraf & Co) and the men who control its jihadi weapons (Gul & Co)—and that the latter are set to topple the former. In this context, the threat of an American military intervention aimed at ‘securing’ Pakistan’s nuclear assets draws a red line for Musharraf’s would-be replacements. The implicit message is that the United States will accept a new regime provided it receives guarantees over the security of the nuclear arsenal. Despite its pan-Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric, Gul & Co is unlikely to desire an American attack over its interests. America might either be looking for or reinforcing rationality in these quarters.

But what about the existing custodians of Pakistan’s nuclear assets? It’s true that Taliban insurgents and tribal militants have seized large swathes of territory. It’s also true that the schism in the Pakistan army is steadily eroding morale. Can the men in the chain of custody, command and control be trusted in these circumstances? Given that Musharraf’s control over the country’s nuclear assets is an important source of his power, he doesn’t really need too many reminders. He has every incentive to keep the assets under his control. Indeed, threatening a “search and secure/destroy” military intervention is unlikely to make Musharraf any more inclined to inform the United States early should any breach occur. On the other hand, Musharraf & Co won’t be unaware of the message that has gone out to Gul & Co. The possibility of the United States jettisoning him should make him more amenable to carrying out Washington’s wishes on the political front.

As usual, it falls upon the Pakistani foreign office to indulge in some bravado. As Chidanand Rajghatta writes, the official reaction is, on the face of it, neither here nor there. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and doctrine is focussed on India and its ability to directly take on the superpower is questionable at best. However, Pakistan does have the “Saddam Scud” option: if you can’t hit the United States, hit Israel instead. Pakistan has that capability. Threatening to target Israel, even implicitly, will certainly make the Americans think hard.

Finally, it might be possible that the signal is meant to warn India to be prepared for the fallout—including the possibility of a misdirected retaliatory strike—should the United States carry out a military operation in Pakistan. Given that this warning could have been delivered through less public means, this might be more of an attempt to gauge Indian reactions to such a proposal.

7 thoughts on “Going public with worries about Pakistan’s crown jewels”

  1. I think it makes no sense to bomb LoP’s nuclear facilities unless the weapons are secure and taken away from LoP. India should help in this endeavor, covertly, if possible. India will be impacted by nuclear material blowing eastward if US blows up facilities. It’s better if they secure the nuclear material and destroy key facilities by special ops on land so that there is no nuclear exposure to general public. Again we can and should help.

    As far as Israel is concerned, the first country that will be targeted if nuclear material falls in Islamic terrorists hands is probably Israel, followed by India, and then US and the west. Israel, being a small land, probably, can monitor for nuclear material. The west is probably on high alert too and probably has the tools to monitor for the material. We, on the other hand, are very laxed. Instead of making excuses, we should do everything necessary to secure the bombs and material as soon as there is trouble in LoP. Unfortunately we seem to have petty leaders for these troubled times.

  2. The US hinted that they haven’t got all their eggs in Mush’s basket. I hope that doesn’t mean that Plan B stands for Plan Benazir – she’s worse than useless. Do you see any evidence of engaging Gul and Co? Probably being done actively by the spooks – with a wink-wink from the State Dept. You’re right that India should engage these guys as well. Gotta pick the winning side even if that side stinks.

    Primary Red mentioned the Al-Aqsa constraint when attacking Israel. This was regarding an Iranian attack. The same could apply to Pakistan too. And the Israelis probably won’t retaliate by thumping fists on UN tables. For all its bravado, the Pak military usually picks on soft foes – India, unarmed civilians, judges with no army behind them, mullahs with pea-shooters in a mosque … picking on Israel would be uncharacteristically reckless.

    India’s the sorry-ass punching bag in the neighborhood. If we don’t send a clear message of dismemberment to dissuade them, the India option becomes attractive for its relatively lower price.

    Nitin: as an aside, was reading “Military Inc.” by Ayesha Siddiqa. If she’s right about extent and increasing reach of Pakistani Milbus, it’s not a question of “if” but “when” it’s bye-bye Pakistan.

  3. Chandra & Libertarian

    While a lot of this targeting and threatening etc is deadly serious, I see the nuclear angle in the context of a tacit “conversation/negotiation” between various players. It would be imprudent, at this stage, to transform the game into a high wire nuclear crisis.

    Do you see any evidence of engaging Gul and Co?

    I’m not sure, but it’s possible that these reports are meant to reach out to tacitly engage Gul & Co. How the return signal works I don’t know.

    Btw, “Military Inc” has been on my reading list for the last several weeks (slow going). It sounds like a wonderful description of the extent of the problem—but no real answer to how Pakistan gets the beast off its back.

  4. I don’t agree with the idea of taking proactive steps to secure pakistani weapons. It will fuel sentiments and motivate more terrorist attacks on Indian soil. India should be in a strong but defensive position. It should send out a message (subtly) that any aggression towards this side will raze Pakistan as a country. Hands-off approach to securing pakistani weapons sounds more logical. This means, we enter the game late and provide logistical support to the armies that are carrying out operation. I think, we should not involve our personnel and equipment till India is attacked directly. This will give us morale high ground and an opportunity of striking hard and big.

  5. Reading these comments is saddening. Human beings talking about annihilation as if they are themselves never to taste death. What a shame! Are you the product of a secular democratic system? Pity on you and your teachers.

    You will rarely ever hear a Pakistani spewing such venom against Bharat or Bharatis.

  6. Supnay,

    You should have stopped with the first paragraph. Although I’d say that you are expecting too much from a ‘secular democratic system’.

    But I am, to put it mildly, surprised by your second paragraph.

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