Politics & Policy

What Not to Do After the Pakistani Coup

Goading Islamabad into building more nuclear bombs is not an ideal course of action.

Besides dashed hopes for the open Islamic democracy that might have been, Washington’s angst over President Musharraf’s rickety emergency rule is rooted in something much, much more worrisome: Fears of what a weakened nuclear-armed Pakistan might bring. It is not merely a fatally deflated zeal to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but the prospect of a politically radicalized Pakistan with loose nukes allied with such groups, or worse, controlled by them, that has Washington truly nervous.

This fear is reasonable. Yet, despite grasping this long-term headache, Washington analysts have yet to spotlight that America’s full-on promotion of nuclear cooperation with India, and its coincidental (and shameless) inattention to India’s strategic ties to Iran, are spooking Pakistan into expanding the very nuclear capabilities we are so worried about. If the U.S. is to keep the danger of Pakistani nuclear diversions to a mild roar, it’s imperative that Congress and the Executive restrain our diplomats from getting so far forward on their skis with India. At the very least, we need to connect the dots.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani government already has. In April of last year, after the U.S. announced it would help India modernize its “peaceful” nuclear and rocket space launch efforts, Pakistan’s National Command Authority publicly announced that if such nuclear and space cooperation destabilized the regional strategic nuclear balance, Pakistan would have to reevaluate its nuclear weapons requirementsTheir statement was anything but idle puffery. Only seven months later, satellite photos revealed Pakistan’s construction of a new, large military production reactor and a plutonium reprocessing plant. Earlier this month, Pakistani officials also announced a major uranium enrichment expansion program to support plans to enlarge Pakistan’s nuclear energy sector at least 20-fold by 2030.

This crash nuclear effort — and the increased difficulty of securing the additional bomb materials it will produce — clearly raises the stakes to stabilize the Pakistani government and to do so from here on out. Indeed, even if we skirt the nuclear worst during this crisis, Musharraf has given us all a nuclear wake up call to keep the Pakistani nuclear threat from growing.

Unfortunately, on this front, we meant to do better than we’ve done. A case in point is our effort to secure Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons holdings against illicit seizure. Despite spending over $100 million dollars to try to accomplish this, we still don’t know where all of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and bomb holding are. Nor do we know who is working within the Pakistani nuclear weapons program or how loyal this work force might be.

As for the U.S. military preparing for a nuclear weapons extraction raid on Pakistan, this would be quite a stretch even under the best of circumstances. A recent analysis done for my center details just how mixed the results of such a raid would be, even if the U.S. forces had the full cooperation of the Pakistani government. It was completed by Tom Donnelly, a hawkish supporter of the Iraq war. His bearish conclusion is captured in the title of his study, “Bad Options: Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Live with Loose Nukes.” The chances of a successful U.S. raid, even with Pakistani government backing, he argues, are not even slim.

This then brings us back to what might be accomplished in the political and diplomatic realms. Critics of the Pakistani regime insist our best bet to manage the growing nuclear risk is to back Ms. Bhutto and the democratic stability her supporters claim her election might bring. Others, noting Ms. Bhutto has anointed herself leader of the Pakistani Peoples Party for life, are less sure. They contend that the U.S. must continue lending military assistance to the current government to assure a steady flow of needed supplies to U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan. Musharraf, they remind us, is the devil we know.

How well Washington’s efforts to square these two views will work is anybody’s guess.

In the long-run though, this much is clear: If the U.S. is at all serious about checking the Pakistani loose nuke threat, it will at least have to stop goading Pakistan’s military into making even more nuclear weapons as a hedge against the U.S. sealing and threatening nuclear partnership with New Delhi.

Right now, that’s what the Pakistani military fears. On the one hand, they worry that once the U.S. and the world’s key nuclear supplier states finalize nuclear space and defense cooperation with New Delhi, India will quickly eclipse Pakistan’s strategic nuclear capabilities and gain the advanced conventional means to knockout most of Pakistan’s deployed nuclear forces. On the other hand, they worry that Washington is more than willing to let India encircle Pakistan, turning a blind eye to India’s increasing ties to Tehran and growing presence in Afghanistan. That’s why Pakistan’s military leadership decided, in 2006, to launch Pakistan’s crash nuclear expansion program.

Senior U.S. State Department officials tried to downplay this decision’s significance. First, they tried to sit on the intelligence on Pakistan’s nuclear build up hoping no one would notice. This, however, didn’t work: Commercial imagery of Pakistan’s nuclear construction effort leaked out. Then, they tried to dismiss Islamabad’s arguments for expanding their nuclear complex. This, however, is difficult. With U.S., Russian, and French civilian nuclear assistance and uranium imports, India will be able to ramp up its military fissile production five-fold or more. Also, with access to the very best U.S. and European space, satellite, rocket, missile defense and sensor technologies, India will certainly pose a far greater conventional threat to Pakistan and its nuclear forces.

Finally, the U.S. is doing all it can to convince the world’s nuclear supplier states to agree to provide nuclear cooperation with India while insisting that no such cooperation be provided to Pakistan. This hardly sits well with the elite in Islamabad. Worse, senior U.S. diplomats are so desperate to reassure Indians that the proposed U.S. nuclear deal is in their strategic interest that they have been encouraging Indians to believe that New Delhi might resume nuclear testing without risking a U.S. or foreign nuclear fuel supply cut off. All of this is goading Islamabad to prepare for the very worst — a U.S.- assisted Indian nuclear breakout.

As for Indian relations with Iran, U.S. diplomats — again, driven by a desperate desire to secure the nuclear deal with India as soon as possible — have been egregiously downplaying these ties lest they upset the U.S. Congress. This has caused Pakistan’s military fits, especially the U.S. State Department’s denial of significant Indian military and intelligence cooperation with Iran.

This cooperation is real and includes the establishment of a senior Indian-Iranian military working group, the conduct of joint Indian-Iranian naval exercises, New Delhi’s training of Iranian military personnel, and the stationing of Indian intelligence agents in Iran at Zahedan adjacent to the rebellious Pakistani state of Balluchistan. Also, a part of this cooperation is India’s construction of the Iranian port at Chahbahar just outside of the Strait of Hormuz opposite Pakistan’s naval base at Gwadar, its construction of roads from this port into Afghanistan (where India is actively working to reduce Pakistani influence), and reported requests for permission to use of Iranian airfields against Pakistan in times of war.

Although each of these Indo-Iranian security undertakings have been highlighted in the press and by Congressional letters to Prime Minister Singh and President Bush, the U.S. State Department has either denied them or downplayed them as being “insubstantial.” Such tin-ear diplomacy, in turn, has only helped to convince the Pakistani military that the U.S. government actually supports India’s military encirclement of Pakistan.

If this were all merely some diplomatic misunderstanding, it could be excused as being no more than a tragic mistake. Fortunately, however, much of the State Department’s desperate diplomacy to finalize the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal runs afoul of U.S. law.

Under the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006, which President Bush signed into law last December, U.S. nuclear cooperation with New Delhi must be suspended if India resumes nuclear testing. The act also requires the Executive Branch to report on India’s nuclear activities to make sure that U.S. nuclear cooperation doesn’t end up helping India make more bombs (something forbidden by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of which the U.S. is a party). Finally, the act clearly states that a key objective of sharing nuclear technology and goods with India is to get New Delhi to join the U.S. in isolating Iran for its nuclear misbehavior, and requires the Executive Branch to report on India’s cooperation towards this end.

Congress has not yet reviewed or approved the actual text of the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperative agreement but when it does, it will be forced to examine if it complies with the Hyde Act, and precisely what India’s military and energy ties are with Iran. Congress is also likely to review New Delhi’s public support of Iran’s right to develop “peaceful nuclear energy” and its recent plea that Tehran’s nuclear transgressions not be sanctioned, as the U.S. is urging, by the United Nations Security Council.

The only question now is whether Congress and the Executive will bother to clarify these points before India itself finalizes the deal, something New Delhi is expected to do early next year, close to when Pakistan is slated to hold elections. If we are serious about reducing the nuclear threats that the current Pakistani arsenal poses, making it clear now that we intend to enforce the Hyde Act would be the sanest, most prudent, minimal thing to do to persuade Pakistan that its crash nuclear expansion is unwarranted. Certainly, doing anything less will only encourage it to press ahead, no matter who in Islamabad becomes president.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and editor of Pakistani Nuclear Futures: Worries Beyond War (Strategic Studies Institute, forthcoming).


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