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Commentary

Mainstreaming Nuclear Pakistan

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In June, the current US administration endorsed the idea to”integrate Pakistan into the international nonproliferation regime.” In step with this goal, two Washington think tanks – the Stimson Center and the Carnegie Endowment – released the report “A Normal Nuclear Pakistan” in late August, which offered a tough, realistic analysis of Pakistan’s place in the global nuclear order while proposing a novel set of initiatives that could advance both South Asian strategic stability and “mainstream” Pakistan’s position.  

The report proposed three broad ideas. First, Pakistan will remain outside the nuclear mainstream without serious changes to its nuclear policy. Second, Pakistan should embrace its already effective strategic deterrent in the service of political rather than military objectives. Third, Pakistan should start formally conforming to the norms of the international nuclear regime.The report also concluded that a normal nuclear Pakistan could not be a home for extremist groups that attack India and provoke crises.

These broad ideas translated into five specific initiatives: convert declaratory policy from “full-spectrum” to “strategic” deterrence; commit to a recessed deterrent posture and limit production of tactical nuclear weapons and delivery systems; separate civilian and military nuclear facilities; lift the veto on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty negotiations; and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. These initiatives would signal restraint and adherence to global practices of responsible nuclear stewardship.

On its face, these proposals would seem to be in India’s interests as well. Without constraining India’s counter-terrorism efforts, such initiatives would improve regional stability, reduce risk and uncertainty in a crisis, mitigate nuclear safety and security concerns, dampen emerging arms competition and facilitate a resumption of serious dialogue. 

Instead, Indian analysts have questioned the very notion of mainstreaming Pakistan into the global nuclear order – or even a path for such an option. They argue that Pakistan’s leadership would never consider it; the higher priority of terrorism would remain unchecked; Pakistan would continue to court insecurity for extortion; and, finally, that such proposals coddle Pakistan while betraying India. In fact, all these objections are inherently problematic and deserve re-examination.

First, while some argue that the Pakistani security establishment will never entertain the possibility of adapting their strategic posture, past experience offers grounds for modest optimism in principle. 

Pakistan’s strategic thinking is often depicted as stagnant and ideological, but in fact, there has been some vibrant internal debate over the past two decades with evidence of learning and gradual adaptation in response to strategic incentives. This includes shifts over the prioritisation of internal versus external threats, counter-insurgency based practices, the endgame in Afghanistan, and consideration of rapprochement with India. Without capacity for adaptation, the General who spearheaded Kargil operations would never have entertained the composite dialogue or four-point formula on Kashmir, and Pakistan’s approach to anti-state militant groups would not have evolved over a decade from signing truces to direct, violent confrontation. Although it is tempting to dismiss Pakistan’s national security apparatus as monolithic, locating the heterodox strategic thinking that does exist, can illuminate creative ways to further India’s interests. 

Even if Pakistan’s leaders hesitate to immediately embrace initiatives for mainstreaming, there is good reason to pose alternatives to policies that aren’t serving Pakistan’s strategic interests. Disrupting nuclear groupthink takes time to germinate, and often begins with outside-the-box suggestions from thinkers outside the group.

Second, some analysts object that cross-border terrorism should remain the chief priority and sidelining this constitutes appeasement. While cross-border terrorism is appalling, dangerous and cannot be overlooked, decoupling nuclear stability from Pakistan’s ties to militant proxies is in everyone’s interest, cutting across all parties. Advancing nuclear safety and security limits escalation scenarios, thereby weakening the power of potential spoilers, bent on sparking conflict.

Currently, the US is demonstrating the importance of delinking international nonproliferation and terrorism concerns. In crafting the Iran nuclear deal – one that the Indian government has formally welcomed – the US was forced to club together Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist organisations and support for insurgent groups that killed hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This does not give Iran a pass on terrorism, but the nuclear deal stems a proliferation problem with much larger and far-reaching consequences while opening up political space to address other mutual strategic concerns.

Third, some contend that Pakistan invites insecurity and uncertainty to pressurise the international community, and that this tendency would increase after being mainstreamed into the global nuclear order. However, there are reasons to doubt this apprehension of rent-seeking behaviour. 

Wilful courting of such external risk jeopardises the capacity to fight internal militancy, and this Pakistan recognises as one of the biggest threats to its security and society. Furthermore, such a move is not cost-productive since uncertainty and instability deter investment, trade and even development assistance (eg for infrastructure). Security perceptions – albeit over-inflated at times – seem to best account for Pakistan’s posture. Therefore, the proposals to mainstream Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, contingent on certain policy changes, offer “win-win” paths to ensure Pakistan’s security, while at the same time promote regional stability.

Fourth, some Indian analysts allege the mainstreaming proposals coddle Pakistan and betray the growing US-India relationship. Ironically, opponents of the Iran nuclear deal recently raised the same zero-sum relationship arguments, but they remain to be just a canard. This objection essentially pushes the US into a false binary choice of engagement between India and Pakistan. But if the US wants to promote regional stability and economic growth, it has to address the national interests of both countries. Washington can engage Pakistan on nuclear issues while cooperating with India on counter-terrorism in the region. Past US experience shows it can balance multiple strategic relationships in regions with active security competitions.

It is in India’s interest for its friends to help formulate creative proposals that can support Pakistan’s transition to a normal nuclear power. The only alternative critics offer – recognising a meaningful military option is off the table – is a continued policy of containment that waits for Pakistan to either collapse or reach an epiphany moment, where they suddenly abandon long-held security perceptions and interests. This is a strategy that is unlikely to yield positive results for India. 

Realistically, Pakistan is unlikely to quickly change its nuclear policies. The steps required to reassure the international community as proposed by the Stimson/Carnegie report are challenging, and demand serious introspection over some of Pakistan’s fundamental strategic concepts, which other states like the US once held. Nevertheless, Indian security analysts should support the idea of mainstreaming, if Pakistan’s leaders take the requisite steps. India, the United States, South Asian regional stability, and the international nonproliferation regime, would benefit from a normal nuclear Pakistan that embraces strategic deterrence and international nuclear norms even if other issues remain outstanding.

This piece originally appeared in DNA India, September 26, 2015

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