Joint India-US planning is a must given the asymmetric risks of snatch operations
The only interesting new thing in Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker report on the issue of the security of Pakistan’s crown jewels is that a US nuclear emergency response team was activated recently but asked to stand down before it landed in Pakistan. The existence of such teams is not in doubt—NEST, for instance, even has a web page. If, as Mr Hersh claims, a snatch team was indeed activated earlier this year, the United States might have, paradoxically, increased the risk of a nuclear explosion in the region. Crown Jewel Panic is perhaps the most dangerous game in the world today.
But the risks are asymmetric: India within easy reach of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, not to mention Pakistan itself, are at a greater risk, compared to the American homeland, of being attacked with a nuclear weapon because of a crisis caused by a US nuclear snatch operation in Pakistan. The Acorn has long argued that alarming Pakistan’s nuclear custodians might actualise a “use it or lose it” psychology in their minds. This sets of a number of risk pathways: mating of warheads and delivery systems; movement of missiles and aircraft to deployment locations and interception/hijacking by ‘unauthorised’ factions of the military-jihadi complex. Such risks get magnified if, as this blog has argued, there is a secret arsenal-within-an-arsenal—and Mr Hersh’s report suggests that some Pentagon officials think so too.
Loose talk about snatch plans, leave alone actual snatch missions, is likely to spook commanders of the Pakistani army charged with managing the nuclear arsenal. Given that these people have been selected on the basis of personnel reliability programmes designed by General Musharraf (notice the irony?) spooking them is not a good idea.
Given the asymmetry of the risks, and the apparent readiness in the United States to activate NEST-like teams, there is a case for India to be very concerned about such operations. There is a clear and urgent case for joint planning between the Indian and US military and political authorities, even if such operations are entirely carried out by US personnel. If this isn’t already happening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would do well to place it on the top of the agenda of his upcoming meeting with President Barack Obama.
In his comments to Dawn Mr Hersh connects US ‘oversight’ of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as allowing India to pull away from the border.
The (Obama administration’s) policy required Pakistan to deploy more troops at the Afghan border to go after the Taliban.
The Americans, he said, wanted the Indians to pull away first, so that Pakistan could focus on the Afghan border. “The Indians said, no. We have 80 nuke weapons pointed at us, we cannot pull back.”
The Americans thought they could encourage the Indians to do so if somehow they had “some control or insight into Pakistan’s nuclear command and control system,” Mr Hersh said.
“The idea is to reassure the Indians that we are in a position to prevent someone from doing something crazy,” he said. “If the Indians are satisfied, it will allow Pakistan to focus on the Afghan border.”
To enable the Indians to reach that point of comfort, the Americans needed to “reassure India that nothing crazy will not happen (sic). After all only target of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is India, not America,” said Mr Hersh. [Dawn]
Now, no serious Indian strategist would be convinced that Pakistan would reveal all its nuclear assets to the Americans. Similarly, no serious Indian strategist would take US reassurances that it has ‘some control and insight’ over Pakistan’s nukes—it is not even clear how many nukes Pakistan has in the first place. It’s not likely that they’ll want to hear “Sorry folks, we missed that one!”