Whose Hand is on the Nuclear Button in South Asia?

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By Michael Krepon – On November 28, 2009 the Pakistani media reported that President Asif Ali Zardari “divested himself” of his “powers” as Chairman of the National Command Authority, transferring them to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.  Pakistan’s history has been marked by triangular jockeying among Pakistan’s Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Army Chiefs, as well as Constitutional gyrations facilitating Army, Parliamentary, and Presidential rule.  Against this backdrop, does this change in the Chairmanship of the NCA have meaning?  Are changes in the NCA and public releases of information about them helpful or harmful to nuclear stabilization on the subcontinent?

General Pervez Musharraf is taking well-deserved lumps for his long tenure as Pakistan’s Army Chief, Chief Executive, and then President.  But one undeniably positive result of his tenure was a stable, institutional structure for Pakistan’s nuclear decision making.  Musharraf stood up a dedicated military organization, the Strategic Plans Division at Joint Staff Headquarters, to work on nuclear-related matters in 1999.  A Nuclear Command Authority, chaired by Musharraf, was established in February 2000.  The composition and functions of the NCA were clarified when Musharraf unilaterally promulgated the NCA Ordinance in December 2007, after he dissolved the National Assembly.  It is not possible to tell from the public record whether the NCA design, as promulgated in 2007, differed from its initial conception.  When Zardari replaced Musharraf as President of Pakistan in 2008, he nominally sat at the apex of this decision-making body.

Under the 2007 ordinance, other members of the NCA serving under the President were the Prime Minister of Pakistan (Vice Chairman); the Minister for Foreign Affairs; the Minster for Defense; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Interior; the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee; the Chief of Army Staff; the Chief of Naval Staff; and the Chief of Air Staff.  The Director General of the Strategic Plans Division, Gen. Khalid Kidwai, has served as Secretary to the NCA since its inception.

The text of the newly amended ordinance has yet to be published, so it is unclear at present whether a new Vice Chairman of the NCA has been designated, and if so, who this person is.  Nor has it been announced whether the composition of the NCA has been changed in some other manner.  

The functions of the NCA, as spelled out in the 2007 ordinance, included the exercise of command and control over nuclear and space programs; supervision, management control, and audits of programs and budgets; authorizing “specialized scientific and technological work”; authority to hire, fire, promote and transfer personnel; personnel reliability, safety and security programs; and the authority “to take measures regarding employees in respect to their movement, communication, privacy, assembly or association in the public interest or in the interest of integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or friendly relations with foreign states.”  There is no public word, as yet, on whether the language of the new ordinance comports with the 2007 version.    
Far more is known about the new NCA structure and functioning in Pakistan than in India.  On January 4, 2003 India’s Cabinet Committee on Security issued a spare press release on “operationalizing India’s nuclear doctrine.” It conveyed the information that the Government of India had created a Political Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, which could authorize the employment of nuclear weapons.  An Executive Council, chaired by the national security adviser, was also formed to provide inputs for the NCA and to execute the directives given to it by the Political Council.  The membership of both Councils has not been officially released.  Presumably, at a minimum, the Cabinet Committee on Security sits on the Political Council.   

India has a firmly entrenched Parliamentary system of government, whereas Pakistan’s governance has been subject to periodic, significant changes.  Despite and because of these political upheavals, the Pakistan Army has remained, by far, the strongest voice on national security matters, as well as the arbiter between contesting political leaders.  Until these circumstances change, no matter which civilian sits at the apex of Pakistan’s NCA, the decision making power rests in uniform.  Collective civil-military decisions remain ideal, but votes behind closed doors on crucial national security issues in Pakistan have always been heavily weighted.  

No government, including the U.S. Government, says much about its National Command Authority.  One important reason for doing so is to improve deterrence.  Another is to promote reassurance for domestic and international audiences.  The Government of Pakistan might consider releasing more information to demonstrate institutional durability during a period of heightened political uncertainty.  The Government of India might consider releasing more information to disabuse those who might think that a decapitation attack in extreme circumstances has any chance of success.

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