x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nuclear summit ignores the real threat: Pakistan's arms

The Seoul nuclear summit failed to come up with binding resolutions, and it did not even manage to mention Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

The second Nuclear Security Summit held in Seoul this week was high on rhetoric and short on substance. Although nearly 50 countries attended the summit and discussed way and means of trying try to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, the event was overshadowed by the likelihood that North Korea will launch a ballistic missile in the next few weeks, as well as US President Barack Obama's off-the-record comments telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that the sensitive issue of European missile defence could not be fully addressed in the heat of the 2012 US presidential campaign.

South Korea's government suggested that the summit did "yield practical outcomes to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism", but the final communiqué made no reference to either Iran or North Korea, the two nations that are challenging the foundations of the global nuclear order. Moreover, there was no discussion at all of the elephant in the room when it comes to nuclear terrorism - the possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists as the governing institutions in Islamabad get weaker by the day.

The US and the West have long 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. Bill Clinton called the Kashmir conflict "the most dangerous flashpoint on Earth" precisely because of that fear.

Indian and Pakistani officials, on the other hand, have continued to argue that just as the threat of "mutual assured destruction" resulted in a "hot peace" between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, nuclear weapons in South Asia will also have a stabilising effect. They point out that despite several provocations, India and Pakistan have behaved "rationally" during various crises by keeping their conflicts limited and avoiding escalation.

But since September 11, the problem has changed in so far as the threat is now more that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could be used against the West by radical Islamists if they can lay their hands on it.

The turmoil in Pakistan has again raised concerns about the safety, security, and command and control of its nuclear stockpile. Although Pakistan's government continues to dismiss media reports that its nuclear weapons have been in danger of falling into the "wrong hands", and stressed that Pakistan provided the highest level of institutionalised protection for its strategic assets, such claims are questionable.

Since 2000, Pakistan's nuclear command and control arrangements have been centred on the National Command Authority, which comprises the Employment Control Committee, the Development Control Committee and the Strategic Plans Division. Only a small group of military officials apparently have access to the country's nuclear assets.

However, these command and control arrangements continue to have some fundamental vulnerabilities that underline the reluctance of the Pakistani military to cede control to civilian leaders.

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 have a problematic track-record in maintaining control over these weapons. AQ Khan led the Pakistani nuclear programme (and is a national hero) but was instrumental in making Pakistan the centre of the biggest nuclear proliferation network by leaking technology to states including Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistani nuclear scientists even travelled to Afghanistan at the behest of Osama bin Laden.

While it is true that the Pakistani military remains largely professional and perhaps the only cohesive force in the country today, it has also become deeply demoralised, reflected in the large number of soldiers preferring to surrender to the militants rather than fight. There are growing signs of fraying loyalties in the Pakistani army, underlining the danger to its cohesion.

The growing "Islamisation" of the younger generation of Pakistani military officers is well-recorded. Given the close links between the Pakistani military and intelligence services, and militant groups fighting in Kashmir and the Taliban, it is not far-fetched to assume that there is a real danger of elements within Pakistan's military-intelligence complex colluding with radical Islamist groups.

Pakistan has accepted US help since September 11 in designing its system of controls for its nuclear arsenal and the prevention of theft. The US has reportedly spent about $100 million (Dh367 million) in helping Pakistan, and some reports have suggested that Pakistan has also received technical assistance from the US.

Throughout the Cold War years, it was viewed as politically prudent in the West and especially in the US to ignore Pakistan's drive towards nuclear acquisition, as it was seen as an important ally in countering the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Nuclear proliferation has never been a first order priority for the US when it comes to Pakistan. Now the Pakistani military seems unable and unwilling to take on Islamist forces gathering momentum on Pakistani territory on one hand; while on the other, the nation's nuclear weapons seem within reach of the extremist forces.

The turmoil and all its consequences in the nuclear realm point to the long-term costs of short-sighted policies in countering proliferation.


Dr Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College London