By Brian D. Finlay and Matthew Rojansky – Last week, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari transferred the chairmanship of the committee governing his country’s nuclear weapons to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. He took this step amidst an ongoing controversy ignited by a November 16 New Yorker article claiming that a “highly classified” US expert squad was prepared, if necessary, to enter Pakistan and secure vulnerable nuclear weapons components in case of a coup by military officers with Islamist sympathies. While the Pakistani government insists that fears about its nuclear arsenal are “nothing more than a concoction to tarnish the image of Pakistan,” any risk that these weapons may fall into the wrong hands is too great. A coordinated “threat reduction” response, with US leadership, is now more urgently needed than ever.
A recent spate of violent attacks on Pakistani military and police targets, including a direct assault on Army headquarters in Rawalpindi that killed more than thirty people, emphasizes the urgency of the threat. Because of their proximity to Taliban-held territory and to sites of previous successful attacks, Pakistan’s nuclear facilities at Wah Cantonment and Chashma Kundian appear especially vulnerable to large-scale terrorist assault. Even hardened physical security measures at known nuclear sites cannot protect weapons and components from being stolen or sold by insiders, or from a pinpoint attack while in transit during an exercise or a crisis-driven redeployment.
Despite assurances from Islamabad that “Pakistan’s strategic assets are completely safe and secure” and that foreign assistance is not needed and will not be tolerated, the US government should offer Pakistan a coordinated assistance program based on the successful model of Cooperative Threat Reduction (Nunn-Lugar) assistance to the former Soviet Union. For such assistance to be palatable to Pakistani leaders and the general public, it must include clear assurances that sovereign control over Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent rests with Islamabad, and that a new CTR program is not the first step toward disarming Pakistan.
When the Soviet system collapsed in the early 1990s, Russia and other successor states were left to deal with a massive legacy of unconventional weapons with a vastly diminished resource base. A dangerous quantity of former Soviet nuclear weapons, materials and expertise was available for theft or black market sale to the highest bidder. In the face of that potential proliferation crisis, the United States launched an ambitious collaborative threat reduction initiative. Today, the so-called Nunn-Lugar program has eliminated more than 7,000 nuclear warheads, and 387 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, enough for more than 15,000 bombs, while more than 100,000 former Soviet scientists have been engaged in peaceful collaborative research with the West. In short, these programs have proven an unparalleled foreign policy success.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the exposure of the A.Q. Khan nuclear black market network, the Bush Administration sought to replicate the successes of the Nunn-Lugar programs by offering similar support to Pakistan. Between 2001 and 2007, more than $100 million in CTR-type assistance was appropriated by the United States government for a wide variety of activities. These included sharing best practices and technical measures to prevent unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons, supplying nuclear detection equipment, and an array of other nuclear and radiological anti-trafficking assistance. In addition, Islamabad has implemented new personnel security measures and taken a number of steps to prevent further proliferation of nuclear-related technologies and materials, including strengthening its export control laws and implementing systems to scan containers for radiological and nuclear materials at Port Qasim. But the Bush Administration’s assistance program was only the first step toward ensuring the security of the Pakistani nuclear complex. Opportunities for theft or diversion of critical nuclear components are growing in Pakistan, not receding.
To date, cooperation with Islamabad on the nuclear issue has not been easy. For Washington’s part, Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have continually sought to make assistance to Pakistan conditional on American access to A.Q. Khan. Furthermore, S.1707, the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009,a $7.5 billion aid package, would limit certain military assistance and arms transfers to Pakistan until the US Secretary of State certifies that Pakistan’s security forces are working to prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from basing attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistan’s territory, or interfering in Pakistan’s political or judicial processes.
Such efforts at linkage proved counterproductive with Russia, whose CTR assistance was hampered by all manner of conditions related to human rights, progress on meeting chemical and biological arms control obligations, and military cooperation with Iran. These conditions were highly contentious in Moscow and other former Soviet satellites, and little evidence suggests that these conditions ever promoted their intended objectives.
As instability continues to spread across South Asia, the US should aim to ensure that the government of Pakistan has all the tools at its disposal to prevent the proliferation of its nuclear weapons, materials, and secrets. For Pakistan, that means, at a minimum, promoting physical protection in and around sensitive weapons or weapons-component storage sites, protecting spent fuel at the Karachi and Chashma nuclear power plants, and managing civilian stockpiles of highly enriched uranium throughout the country.
But these immediate security concerns are only a first step. Ultimately, the enduring value of CTR efforts in the former Soviet Union went beyond the physical protection of weapons and materials. Collaborative science efforts between the United States and Russia promoted transparency and trust between the two governments. Already in Pakistan, mistrust of US motives has been a significant barrier to wider CTR collaboration. As in the former Soviet Union, science engagement should be promoted as a central component of Washington’s overall security strategy with Pakistan, not strictly-or even principally-as a measure of transparency, but as a broader tool to encourage peaceful collaborative exchanges and mutual scientific benefit. This “dual use” cooperation was consistently undervalued in the wider US-Russian relationship. The US should not replicate those mistakes with Pakistan.
Like the former Soviet states in the 1990s, Pakistan is a society in transition, with acute physical vulnerabilities and unique political sensitivities. US nuclear security assistance, though badly needed, should be offered carefully, with emphasis on cooperation to ensure Pakistanis see CTR as the transparent, win-win opportunity it has been for other US partners.
Photo Credit: Pete Souza, Executive Office of the President of the United States
Brian Finlay is a Senior Associate and Director of the Managing Across Boundaries Program at the Stimson Center. Matthew Rojansky is the Executive Director of the Partnership for a Secure America.