Concerns about secret US raids into Pakistan

US covert operations in Pakistan pose risks to India

There is something disturbing about US raids of the sort that killed Osama bin Laden. If the level of secrecy was so high that the Pakistani military establishment was not operationally aware of who was conducting the raid, if not for what purpose, there is a risk that the Pakistanis will reflexively react as if it were an Indian attack.

The White House counter-terrorism chief’s comments add to these concerns:

Q: And I understand that there was a moment of real tension, one with the helicopter, but then also when the Navy SEALs were leaving and the Pakistani government started scrambling their jets, and there was a concern that they were coming to where the U.S. troops were, where the Navy SEALs were. Was there an actual concern that the Pakistanis — since they were not apparently informed about this military operation, was there an actual concern that they might actually take military action against the Navy SEALs?

MR. BRENNAN We didn’t contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace. At the time, the Pakistanis were reacting to an incident that they knew was taking place in Abbottabad. Therefore, they were scrambling some of their assets.

Clearly, we were concerned that if the Pakistanis decided to scramble jets or whatever else, they didn’t know who were on those jets. They had no idea about who might have been on there, whether it be U.S. or somebody else. So we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of Pakistani airspace. And thankfully, there was no engagement with Pakistani forces. This operation was designed to minimize the prospects, the chances of engagement with Pakistani forces. It was done very well, and thankfully no Pakistani forces were engaged and there was no other individuals who were killed aside from those on the compound. [White House, emphasis added]

The military establishment is paranoid about their “strategic assets” and the notion of US, India and Israel snatching Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has been deeply socialised within the population. Presuming that John Brennan is telling the truth, what this means is that raids like the one the US conducted in Abbottabad might be seen as attempts to defuse the nuclear arsenal, especially but not necessarily if they happen to be conducted in the vicinity of nuclear weapons storage sites. This sets up a game of Crown Jewel Panic, which poses asymmetric risks for India. [See 1 2 3 4]

It is in India’s interests that the United States share information with India or Pakistan well before it conducts such operations. Now there is a chance that if India is seen to be raising its guard after receiving such information, the Pakistani army will be more inclined to believe that something is afoot, thereby raising the risks to India. So informing the Pakistanis would be the best way to lower the risks of unintended consequences. But then, informing the Pakistanis might well defeat the whole purpose of the covert raid. Therefore, given that the risks disproportionately accrue to India, keeping New Delhi in the loop is a far better option than keeping it in the dark.

Obviously, the question is “Why would the Americans tell us?” It is easy to the usual route of cribbing that they never will. That route also leads to a cul-de-sac. The other route is to ask “How can New Delhi persuade Washington that it is better that they tell us first?” The latter route is likely to be more productive.

Pakistan’s ‘second’ nuclear arsenal

My talk at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi

Earlier this month, I presented my analysis of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal at CLAWS. A summary of the talk and discussion is up at their website. Excerpt:

Pakistan is worried for its nuclear safety and the US view on its nuclear programme. The second nuclear arsenal would be outside the ambit of its regular arsenal and could be brought into play if any attempt is made to take out its regular arsenal by any agency distrustful of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.

Possible existence of a second nuclear arsenal increases the risk for the US and also imposes an asymmetric threat to India. Such an arsenal will fuel an arms race in the Middle East especially in view of the Saudi-Pak nuclear convergence and cooperation with respect to growth of Iran’s nuclear capability. India for its part must disabuse all concerned that it is in a nuclear arms race and promote stability in the region. Perhaps if India can act as an interlocutor between Iran and the USA and bring about a rapprochement between the two countries, it could promote strategic stability in the region and prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. [Shah Alam/CLAWS]

Related posts: Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear capacity? The arms race in the Middle East; Not our problem; and, MUD not MAD

Crown Jewel Panic

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!”