Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, a deterrent against India, but also United States ?

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have been conceived and developed as a deterrent against mighty neighbour India, more so now when its traditional rival has added economic heft to its military muscle. But Islamabad may also be holding onto its nuclear arsenal  to deter an even more powerful challenge, which to its mind, comes  from the United States, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who led President Barack Obama’s 2009 policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan and the United States are allies in the war against militancy, but ties have been so troubled in recent years that  some in Pakistan believe that the risk of a conflict cannot be dismissed altogether and that the bomb may well be the country’s  only hedge against an America that looks less a friend and more a hostile power.
Last year  the Obama administration said there could be consequences if the next attack in the West were to be traced backed to Pakistan, probably the North Waziristan hub of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups.No nation can ignore a warning as chilling as that, and it is reasonable to expect the Pakistan military to do what it can to defend itself.
Riedel  in a piece in The Wall Street Journal says Pakistan’s army chief Ashfaq Kayani may well have concluded that the only way to hold off a possible American military action is the presence of nuclear weapons on its soil and hence the frenetic race to increase the size of the arsenal to the point that Pakistan is  on track to become the fourth largest nuclear power after the United States, Russia and China. 
Last month’s military action in Libya, the third Muslim nation attacked by the United States in the ten years since 9/11, can only  heighten anxieties in Pakistan. Indeed Libya holds an opposite lesson for Pakistan’s security planners. This is a country that gave up a nuclear weapons programme - ironically assisted by Pakistan’s disgraced nuclear scientist A.Q.Khan – under a deal with the West following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.   Suppose for a moment that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had held on its nuclear weapons, would there have been air strikes then ?
Indeed none of the three countries attacked by the United States had nuclear weapons including, as it turned out, Iraq although the whole idea of invading it was to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction.  You could further argue that this perhaps is the one reason why the United States hasn’t taken on North Korea because of its advanced nuclear programme with a bomb or two in the basement.
Kayani and the generals have therefore concluded the only reason the United States may hesitate to use force against Pakistan, should ties break down completely,  will be because of the 100-odd weapons it has. It only makes sense to expand it further to make the Americans think twice before launching an action.
But such nuclear brinkmanship  cannot come without consequences of its own, and one of them will be India reviewing its nuclear posture. A Pakistan battling a deadly Islamist militancy and beset with economic difficulties but on a fast track to expand its  nuclear weapons programme is a nightmare scenario. Riedel says India has exercised restraint on its weapons program me, but seeing an acceleration in the Pakistani efforts, it may well step up production of its own.
Some people, of course, argue nuclear weapons are really not a numbers game. How does it matter if you have 100 weapons when you can just as easily blow up your enemy with a quarter of those ? What is more critical is command and control of these weapons, as the Indian National Interest blog points out.
Pakistan. in addition, sees the window closing once the world moves on an agreement on fissile material cut-off treaty which it has been resisting all along. But once that agreement is in place and a lot depends on the United States, then theoretically it will have to cease fissile material production  needed for weapons.  
India, by contrast, can use its domestic reserves of nuclear material  should it require to expand its arsenal, now that it has been allowed import of nuclear fuel and technology under a landmark agreement with the United States. Pakistan sought a similar deal but was denied, because of among other issues its record of nuclear proliferation.
(File picture of Ghaznavi ballistic missile)

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