This is a guest post by Eric Auner, a Policy Analyst at the American Security Project. He tweets at @eauner.
Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder’s latest article properly focuses on nuclear dangers emanating from Pakistan. Their critiques of Pakistani behavior are powerful and convincing. The article does not, however, acknowledge the ways in which Pakistani nuclear policies mirror those of other nuclear-armed states.
Pakistan is in a difficult spot, both politically and geographically. It faces multiple insurgencies at home, it is bordered by an unstable Middle East and a rising India, and the country’s economy and political system consistently fail to deliver results for most Pakistanis.
The Pakistani government’s behavior has exacerbated these problems. Civilian leaders are corrupt and ineffectual, which has tended to strengthen the political dominance of an overly ambitious military. The country has started numerous unsuccessful wars with India. It has used militant and terrorist groups to bloody its stronger rival and maintain influence in Afghanistan. Numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, have resulted from this policy.
Pakistan has also developed a nuclear arsenal, which now consists of over 100 weapons by some estimates. The country developed nuclear weapons in response to the Indian nuclear program. India conducted a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 and then conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998 after decades of steady progress towards a nuclear weapons capability. Pakistan responded with its own nuclear tests in 1998, announcing itself as a nuclear weapons power.
Many observers, including Goldberg and Ambinder, are concerned that Pakistan is unwilling or unable to keep its nuclear weapons safe from terrorist groups.
Below I identify several of the arguments used in Goldberg and Ambinder’s article and elsewhere to criticize Pakistani behavior in the nuclear realm. I will argue that Pakistan’s actions are in many ways broadly similar to those taken by other nuclear weapon powers.
This exercise is not intended to excuse or validate Pakistan’s actions, especially the use of terrorist groups as a foreign policy tool. Nor do I suggest that the history of the Pakistani nuclear program exactly resembles those of other countries. Rather, I propose that a more thorough understanding of Pakistani nuclear motivations will result in a more thoughtful and effective American response to the challenges posed by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan is not transparent about its nuclear arsenal
Goldberg and Ambinder highlight Pakistani nuclear opacity (emphasis added):
Some American intelligence experts question Pakistan’s nuclear vigilance. Thomas Fingar, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and deputy director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, said it is logical that any nuclear-weapons state would budget the resources necessary to protect its arsenal—but that “we do not know that this is the case in Pakistan.” The key concern, Fingar says, is that “we do not know if what the military has done is adequate to protect the weapons from insider threats, or if key military units have been penetrated by extremists. We hope the weapons are safe, but we may be whistling past the graveyard.”
It would enhance international stability (and calm American fears) if Pakistan provided more information about its nuclear plans. Unfortunately, no country, including the United States, is fully transparent in this regard. Nuclear weapons locations, safety procedures, and targeting plans will always be closely guarded secrets.
Pakistan is expanding its nuclear arsenal and building new kinds of weapons
Western nuclear experts have feared that Pakistan is building small, “tactical” nuclear weapons for quick deployment on the battlefield.
There is a long-running debate about how many nuclear weapons a given country “needs” to protect itself. Nuclear-armed countries have tended to err on the side of building a large number of weapons in order to deter rivals and hedge against a first strike against their nuclear forces.
The United States possessed over 20,000 nuclear weapons with various explosive yields at the height of the Cold War and retains over 5,000 today. The substantial reductions of the last two decades have come in the context of relative international stability and the disappearance of America’s main strategic threat.
For Pakistan, the strategic threat from India is growing as the country gains more political and economic clout and continues a robust military modernization campaign.
Seen in this context, the Pakistani decision to invest its scarce resources in nuclear warheads is regrettable and destabilizing, but is hardly without historical precedent.
Pakistan disperses its nuclear forces, making them more difficult to protect and account for
General Kidwai promised that he would redouble the [Strategic Plans Division’s (SPD)] efforts to keep his country’s weapons far from the prying eyes, and long arms, of the Americans, and so he did: according to multiple sources in Pakistan, he ordered an increase in the tempo of the dispersal of nuclear-weapons components and other sensitive materials. One method the SPD uses to ensure the safety of its nuclear weapons is to move them among the 15 or more facilities that handle them. Nuclear weapons must go to the shop for occasional maintenance, and so they must be moved to suitably equipped facilities, but Pakistan is also said to move them about the country in an attempt to keep American and Indian intelligence agencies guessing about their locations.
All countries with nuclear weapons have feared that foreign powers could disable their nuclear weapons on the ground to prevent them from being used. The established nuclear powers use nuclear-armed submarines precisely because they are almost impossible to find. Pakistan lacks the sophistication to deploy a submarine with nuclear missiles and its land-based facilities are visible to foreign surveillance.
The article alleges that Pakistan transports complete nuclear weapons on public roads in unmarked vans (Pakistan denies this). This is highly dangerous and irresponsible if true. Nevertheless, the general practice of dispersing nuclear forces is broadly consistent with the behavior of other nuclear powers.
Pakistan reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict and may use them on the battlefield
India, in contrast, has been more transparent about its nuclear posture; unlike Pakistan, it has pledged not to use nuclear weapons first—only in response.
During the Cold War, NATO feared a Soviet invasion of Europe. This led the United States to threaten nuclear retaliation against a conventional Soviet attack and to station tactical nuclear weapons in several European countries. A number of these weapons remain in Europe today. The United States still reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in some circumstances. Israel developed its nuclear arsenal to protect itself against invasion by its neighbors, none of which have nuclear weapons.
There is a powerful argument to be made that all nuclear-armed countries should declare a “no first use” policy and renounce nuclear weapons as a war fighting tool, retaining them as a pure deterrent. Few countries have done so. Pakistan is sadly typical in this regard.
Goldberg and Ambinder are correct that “keeping Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal secure and holstered” is “the most important goal” for American policy towards the country. A policy centered on this goal will need to find new ways to address Pakistani feelings of insecurity and nuclear vulnerability. Policies that build stability between India and Pakistan are a necessary precondition for progress on this front.
Pakistan’s nuclear policy presents unique challenges even as it adheres to historical patterns. American policy will benefit from acknowledging them.