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.