Brigadier Syed Mushtaq Ahmed (Retd) has extensive experience in areas of national security, intelligence and strategic issues. He has worked as a Senior Research Analyst in a strategic organisation and has a niche for writing research articles and analytical assessments, specializing in counterintelligence, counter-terrorism and nuclear security.
Nuclear Assets—A Boon or a Bane?
President Biden’s latest remarks regarding the insecurity of the nukes of Pakistan were either by intent or a gaffe, given his senility—the latter being more of an excuse since security statements are prepared scripts.
The U-turn by State Department’s spokesman, Vendant Patel, is perhaps at best a placating effort or indication of policy differences between the State Department and the US Intelligence Community. Notwithstanding, the abiding concern about Pakistan’s nuclear security has been omnipresent, and modulated in time to force it into submission.
What is particularly in the cross-hair has been Pakistan’s strategic assets, which albeit a boon and a sin qua non for its security, is paradoxically considered a bane for the West and therefore a cause of continual concern and scorn by the US and its cohorts, especially Israel and India. Spinning cobwebs around these make the state as well as the nukes look more and more fragile and vulnerable.
Myth #1: Balkanization of Pakistan
This has been the common theme resonating in the policy circles without any letup. In 2009, US experts saw Pakistan’s disintegration threatening the security of nuclear arsenals, Afghanistan, India, the oil-rich Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the US and its allies. In 2013, the counter-insurgency expert and adviser to then-CENTCOM Commander Gen David Petraeus, David Kilcullen asserted, “Pakistan could collapse within six months in the face of snowballing insurgency.”
Indian writers like Vicky Nanjappa sing to the same tune, “….The first step towards balkanisation would be to weaken the Pakistan Army…If the balkanisation of Pakistan takes place, then the power shifts in India’s favour. With Pakistan being reduced to a province, the power balance between China and India would be maintained….”. Sanat Bhardwaj too has stated that “The balkanization is approaching fast and imminent.”
Myth #2: Pakistan as a Failing State
The US National Intelligence Council (NIC) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a jointly prepared Global Futures Assessment Report in 2008 said “by year 2015 Pakistan would be a failed state, ripe with civil war, bloodshed, inter-provincial rivalries and struggle for control of its nuclear weapons and complete Talabanisation.”
Bruce Riedel’s anxiety “about not just a collapsing Pakistan, but also a fundamentalist Pakistan friendly to Al Qaeda that gains control of the country and its nukes” is all but well known. Indian senior defence analyst, Lt Gen PR Shankar (Retd) contends that “A weak and fragile Pakistan is failing. Its descent is steady”.
Pakistan figured at 10th in the Failed States Index compiled for 2009 by Foreign Policy Magazine, but the country has considerably gained ground, standing at 30th in the Fragile State Index in 2022.
Myth #3: Pakistan as the Epicentre of Terrorism
Senator John Kerry stated that Pakistan was “‘ground zero’ for the terrorist threat” to the United States. The 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism considered Pakistan to have “remained a safe harbor for other regionally focused terrorist groups.”
The paranoiac concern though has mellowed down, it still resonates in some Western capitals. Her Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi at the CICA meeting in Kazakhstan in October 2022 branded Pakistan as “the global epicentre of terrorism….”
Myth #4: Nuclear Arsenal Under Siege
John R. Bolton stated, “that the extremists who harboured Al Qaeda could get control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal”. Hillary Clinton considered Pakistan, an unstable and nuclear-armed country, to pose “a mortal threat to the security and safety” of the United States and the world.
Simon Tisdall warned that Pakistan was “continuing to expand its nuclear bomb-making facilities despite growing international concern that advancing Islamist extremists could overrun one or more of its atomic weapon plants or seize sufficient radioactive material to make a dirty bomb”. US Senators even urged Obama to apply the Nunn-Lugar bill to safeguard the nukes of Pakistan.
While most of the aforementioned myths have lost the wind in their sails, they still reverberate with some disdain. Is this then mere conjecturing by the US and Indian press about the insecurity of Pakistan’s nuclear capability? Perhaps not! It may well be more of a policy implemented to create chaos and civil unrest as a pretext for capping Pakistan.
Media during the last two decades is indicative of a set variable trend and a particular design portending a sinister plan of either neutralising or taking out the nukes of Pakistan through devious direct/indirect means and methods. However, much to the chagrin of the policymakers, all such caricaturing ad nauseam turned sour without yielding its purported objectives thanks to the astute nuclear diplomacy and resilient defence and security of the nuclear assets.
The diabolic scheme of neutralising the strategic assets through double jeopardy of economic strangulation and engendering constructive chaos is now at work. The security of the nukes already under stress is further compounded by the deteriorating economic conditions of Pakistan.
The compulsion of following the IMF route runs the inherent risk of invoking international intervention, amounting to surrendering economic sovereignty—the tell-tale signs of which are now becoming apparent. This is further exacerbated by an often overplayed contentious public discourse of security vs economy, questioning whether nuclear weapons are required or would conventional weapons be sufficient to provide requisite security.
How much strategic cum conventional capability is enough is ascertained by the evolving security environment. The nuclear capability has provided the requisite security dividend which the conventional capability alone could not afford. In view of the ever-growing conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis India, the qualitative advancement of Pakistan’s nuclear programme is a cost-effective proposition.
Considering our critical dependence on nuclear capability, while we consciously institute the conventional-nuclear balance, the developmental programme (not open-ended) without relent must be cautiously pursued within the parameters of credible minimum deterrence.
Notwithstanding the bigoted Western concerns, nuclear sovereignty must be zealously guarded with relentless efforts. Given the fear of looming economic insolvency, the effort of inducing the country’s top leadership unwittingly to stop financing the nuclear development, amounting to putting a virtual freeze, or agreeing to a joint custodial may well be on the cards, which needs to be factored in astutely in our security calculations.
Political Faux Pas
While we have successfully steered through the turbulent periods of the last two decades, the present decade, however, presents us with a new internal challenge. The civil-military diatribe, the ongoing politico-economic instability, and the militant resurgence—all are but an explosive mix, adding new dimensions to the erstwhile doomsday scenarios about the country.
It goes without saying that the much-needed political stability and security remain an absolute must for economic progress; the former providing the requisite umbrella for the latter’s development. Never before in our history has the military come under so much derision and unwanted criticism for its illusory apolitical role.
Held in high esteem, the nation has always looked upon the military as its eventual saviour in crises. Therefore, to redeem its revered image, it is imperative that for the larger national interest, the military plays its traditional role one more time, before its avowed intent of becoming apolitical. To diffuse the present crises, it must facilitate the much-needed political discourse, leading to a free-fair adult franchise sooner than later.
Incidentally, the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission may also well be in order under an independent judiciary, but that remains a distant reality. For now, it’s time to put aside personal/institutional egos to contend with the present challenges and convert these into opportunities, to instil nationalism and forge a more cohesive and united nation, by attending to the miseries of flood-affected distressed and dislocated people in earnest.
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