How Safe And Secure Are Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons?

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By Michael Krepon – These weapons are the nation’s most closely guarded man-made objects, its “crown jewels,” so to speak.  I do not place much credence in scenarios that project a takeover of the Pakistani government or Army leadership by Islamic extremists. Pakistan’s religious parties do not fare well in national elections.  The most hard-core Islamic extremists have turned against their former handlers in Pakistan’s military and security services, but they are in no position to take over the state. Acts of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, especially those that claim the lives of innocent bystanders, do not win hearts and minds.

If the takeover threat by extremists is overblown, what developments in Pakistan would most threaten the safety and security of Pakistan’s “crown jewels”?  One possibility is a breakdown of the unity of command within the Pakistan Army.  Another is a serious crisis or a military clash with neighboring India.

When tensions rise precipitously with India, the readiness level of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent also rises.  The dictates of deterrence mandate some movement of launchers and weapons from fixed locations during crises. Nuclear weapons on the move are inherently less secure than nuclear weapons at heavily guarded storage sites and are also more susceptible to “insider” security threats.  If a crisis spills over into combat, the possibility of a mushroom cloud, whether by accident, a breakdown of command and control, or a deliberate, top-down decision cannot be discounted.   

How likely is this scenario?  A horrific act of violence that sparks another serious crisis on the Subcontinent is always a possibility.  However, the Pakistan Army leadership can be expected to try to avoid having heightened security concerns on two fronts.  This means that, as long as activities along the border with Afghanistan preoccupy Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, they will seek to avoid serious tensions with India.

The Pakistan Army’s unity of command is essential for nuclear security.  Thus, a second worrisome scenario is a prolonged period of turbulence and infighting among the country’s President, Prime Minister, and Army Chief.  Under the current Pakistani Constitution, the President picks the Army Chief.  But Pakistan’s Constitution is far from being a settled document, and one of the amendments currently under consideration would shift this important prerogative to the Prime Minister. The President is also the head of Pakistan’s National Command Authority, as presently constituted.  This, too, might change in the event of a shift of power in favor of the Prime Minister.

The triangular jockeying for power in Pakistan isn’t new. At times, political leaders have chosen Army Chiefs, but their track record has not been good.  Unwelcome outcomes usually result when Pakistani Army Chiefs are elevated to help advance political agendas rather than by their seniority and professionalism.

Pakistan’s Army reflects popular sentiment. It follows that, if national governments do not address popular grievances, those grievances will grow, including within the Army.  If national divisions widen, they will also widen within the military.  

What, then, can the United States do to help Pakistan improve its nuclear safety and security?  There is very great suspicion in Pakistan about US intentions.  Mistrust grows with every press report or idle comment about US contingency plans to “seize” or otherwise take action against Pakistan’s nuclear assets in the event of an imminent breakdown of governmental authority or a prospective rise of Islamist extremists into leadership positions. Such speculation reinforces the natural instinct of Pakistani military authorities to keep US officials at a safe distance from their crown jewels.  This, in turn, limits the amount and kind of security assistance that the Pakistani authorities are willing to accept.

Providing “best practices” on how to improve security at sensitive sites is possible from a safe distance: The United States doesn’t need to visit such facilities in order to impart the lessons we have learned based on long experience. Nor does it require classified sensors and technologies to upgrade the security perimeters at sensitive sites.  Pakistani authorities are more likely to accept US offers of assistance that meet the “safe distance” rule and are pursued in a low-profile way.
The United States can also help promote nuclear safety and security on the Subcontinent by acting as a crisis manager if and when Pakistan and India again go eyeball to eyeball.  Crisis avoidance and peace making are far, far better than crisis management.  Regrettably, Washington has focused very little on ways to promote a Kashmir settlement and reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

Over the long haul, the most effective measures to promote nuclear safety and security are those that help Pakistan to find its footing.  A well governed, stable society that is at peace with its neighbors is one in which nuclear weapons have little use and are well guarded.  The United States can help Pakistan’s military to counter threats to internal security, but this will take time – and a reorientation of a Pakistani military mindset that has previously focused on India rather than on internal security.

The United States can’t build a more stable, well governed Pakistan – this is the job of Pakistanis. But US policies toward South Asia can still influence outcomes, even if they don’t determine them.  

Retrieving US standing in Pakistan will be a long, hard slog, since American interests are now widely viewed as pro-Musharraf and anti-Pakistan.  Political stability and good governance will be slow in coming.  These goals will not be advanced by US disengagement.  Congress can help Pakistan to find its footing by providing bottom-up, non-military assistance programs that manifestly improve standards of living within the country.  Military assistance programs that help Pakistan’s armed forces to counter the common threat of Islamic extremism would also be wise investments in the future.

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