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India-Pakistan matrix challenges nuclear security efforts in region

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — According to the most recent estimates by U.S. intelligence, Pakistan has doubled its nuclear stockpile over the past few years. The nation’s arsenal now totals more than 100 deployed weapons.

Pakistan is now ahead of India in the production of uranium and plutonium for bombs and development of delivery weapons. It is now producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world. Pakistan will soon be the world’s fourth-largest nuclear weapons state, ahead of France and Britain and behind only the United States, Russia and China.

Pakistan is investing heavily in plutonium-production capacity with work reportedly under way on a fourth plutonium-producing reactor at Khushab nuclear complex.

At a time when the U.S. has pushed the Pakistani military to shift its focus to the threat from extremist groups within its own borders, recent reports once again underscore the Pakistan military establishment’s perception of an India-centric threat.

The danger is that this expansion is happening at a time of great internal turmoil in the country and the rise of religious extremism. The fears of proliferation and possible terrorist attempts to seize nuclear materials are real and cannot be brushed aside. Along with the defeat of al-Qaida, the Obama administration’s “Afghan War Review” of last year has mentioned Pakistan’s nuclear security as one of the two long-term strategy objectives in Af-Pak.

In U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks last year, concerns about the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear material were evident.

As the Obama administration was starting to review its Af-Pak policy, an intelligence report suggested that while Pakistan’s weapons were well secured, there was deep, continuing concern about “insider access,” meaning elements of the military or intelligence services.

Then U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson wrote in a separate document that “our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GOP [government of Pakistan] facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

It’s surprising, then, that even as American officials were trying to persuade Pakistani officials to give up nuclear material, they were quietly trying to block Pakistan from trying to buy material that would help it produce tritium, a crucial ingredient needed to increase the power of nuclear weapons.

A December 2008 U.S. intelligence briefing to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization noted that “despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.”

Yet, any attempt by the U.S. to force Pakistan’s hand on the nuclear issue will only generate further suspicion that the U.S. favors India and wants to control Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. This, despite the fact that throughout the Cold War years, Washington played a crucial role in giving a boost to Pakistan’s nuclear program by turning a blind eye to nuclear developments in the country.

Today Pakistan accuses the West of a double standard and discrimination as pressure mounts on Islamabad to sign the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), aimed at banning all future production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

A successful conclusion of FMCT by the end of this year is a critical element of the Obama administration’s nonproliferation agenda. In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed a $6.5 billion aid package for Pakistan with the stipulation that the Obama administration provide regular assessments of whether any of the money “directly or indirectly aided the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.”

The U.S. has already spent more than $100 million helping Pakistan build fences, install sensor systems and train personnel to handle nuclear weapons.

Pakistan already has more than enough nuclear weapons for an effective deterrent against India. Some 110 nuclear weapons will not make Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent any more effective than a deterrent based on 60-odd weapons. Nuclear deterrence doesn’t work like that. The higher number will just be used by the military to enhance its prestige by claiming that Pakistan is ahead of India, at least in this realm.

For a long time, the U.S. and its allies have viewed nuclear weapons in South Asia with dread because of the possibility that a conventional war between India and Pakistan might escalate into a nuclear one.

Indian and Pakistani officials, on the other hand, have continued to argue that just as the risk of “mutual assured destruction” resulted in a “hot peace” between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, nuclear weapons in South Asia will also have a stabilizing impact. They point out that despite several provocations, India and Pakistan have behaved “rationally” during various crises by limiting their conflicts and avoiding escalation.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, the nature of the problem for the West changed insofar as the threat is now more of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal being used against the West by radical Islamists if they can lay their hands on it.

There is little hope that the “rational actor” model on which classical nuclear deterrence theory is based would apply as much to militant Islamist groups as it would to the Pakistani government. The present turmoil in Pakistan has once again raised concerns about the safety, security and command and control systems for its nuclear stockpile. Command and control arrangements continue to be beset with fundamental vulnerabilities that underline the reluctance of the Pakistani military to cede control over the nation’s nuclear assets to civilian leaders.

It is instructive to note that of all the major nuclear states in world, Pakistan is the only country where the nuclear button is in the hands of the military. Moreover, senior civilian and military officials responsible for these weapons have a problematic track record in maintaining close control over them.

This poses a serious challenge to the India’s minimum credible deterrent nuclear posture. While India has little to worry about Pakistan’s desire to have more than 100 nuclear warheads, the possibility of leakage from the state to nonstate actors is a serious threat as it will undermine India’s ability to maintain peace in the region. A dangerous new nuclear matrix is emerging in the region.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.