Pakistan and the Bomb

Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. The arsenal is well protected, concealed and dispersed. The Pakistani army makes every effort to deny information about the locations of its weapons out of fear of any falling into enemy hands, especially American hands.

The army is ready to use its nukes to defend their country, holding onto the national deterrent against any foreign threat. But the international community questions Pakistani control: Are the nukes safe from Pakistan's own home-grown opponents?

The assassination of Salman Taseer – the governor of Pakistan's largest province, Punjab – by his own bodyguard raises serious new questions about the process of vetting key employees in the Pakistani security infrastructure. And there's compelling reports that Pakistan is prepared to share its weapons with its closest ally, Saudi Arabia, if Riyadh feels threatened by Iran.

The Pakistani nuclear button is in the control of the country's military leaders. The democratically elected leadership has only nominal authority over them. If the country fell into the wrong hands, those of the militant Islamic jihadism and Al Qaeda, so would the arsenal. The United States and the rest of the world would face the worst security threat since the Cold War.

Pakistan is a unique nuclear weapons state. It's been the recipient of proliferation technology transfers, by theft (from the Netherlands) and from others (China), and it's been a supplier as well (North Korea, Iran, Libya). Pakistan has been a state sponsor of proliferation and tolerated private-sector proliferation as well. As a weapons state it has engaged in highly provocative behavior against its neighbor India, even initiating a limited war in 1999, and its intelligence service, the ISI, has sponsored terrorist groups that have engaged in mass-casualty terrorism inside India's cities, most famously in Mumbai, November 2008.

Pakistan's fourth military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, created a Strategic Plans Division (SPD) in the army to provide security for the arsenal. Its director, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, has lectured across the world on the extensive security layers developed by the SPD, for facilities and personnel to prevent unauthorized activity by those overseeing protection of the weapons. The US has provided expertise to the SPD to help ensure security, but is kept at arms length from facilities and personnel. Pakistanis don't trust Washington's intentions.

Former deputy of the SPD, Brigadier General Feroz Khan, noted that Pakistan had up to 120 nuclear warheads, as reported by the Washington Post in December 2007. Since then Pakistan has brought new reactors on line and undoubtedly produced more. Pakistan can deliver its weapons by both intermediate-range missiles and jet aircraft, including American-supplied F16s. The bombs and the delivery systems are dispersed around a country twice the size of California, often buried deep underground.

The SPD personnel vetting process has been largely an enigma to outsiders. The ISI, which monitors military loyalty, does the bulk of the vetting. And so the assassination of Taseer by his own Elite Force bodyguard, who was angered at Taseer's support for efforts to amend Pakistan's blasphemy laws that impose death for any anti-Islamic statements, raises questions about the vetting process. According to the Pakistani press, the assassin had a track record of sympathy for extremist Islam, yet also guarded the president or prime minister 18 times during the last three years and was assigned to guard two foreign dignitaries, unnamed, before he shot the governor, according to the Associated Press.

If bodyguards for the leadership are not properly vetted, how well protected are the arsenals? We simply don't know.

Of course, if Pakistan becomes a jihadist state, then the extremists inherit the arsenal. A jihadist takeover is neither imminent nor inevitable, but it's a real possibility. After all, one of Pakistan's four previous military dictators, Zia ul Haq, was a jihadist and turned the country radically toward extremist Islam.

In this scenario, the international community could issue calls to "secure" Pakistan's nuclear weapons, but since no outsider knows where most are located, such calls would be a hollow threat. Even if force was used to capture some of the weapons, Pakistan would retain most and the expertise to build more. Finally Pakistan would use its weapons to defend itself.

Pakistan may also continue to contribute to nuclear proliferation. There are persistent, but unverified, reports of an understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons. Then Saudi defense minister and now also Crown Prince Sultan Ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud visited Pakistan's laboratories amid great publicity in the late 1990s. Some sensationalist reports claim the Saudis keep aircraft permanently deployed in Pakistan to rush a bomb or two to Riyadh if needed. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia deny any secret deal, but rumors continue to surface as Iran moves closer to developing its own bomb.

US policy toward Pakistan in general and the Pakistani bombs in particular has oscillated wildly over the last 30 years between blind enchantment and unsuccessful isolation. President Ronald Reagan turned a blind eye to the program in the 1980s because he needed Zia and the ISI to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. President George H.W. Bush sanctioned Pakistan for building the bomb in 1990; President Bill Clinton added more sanctions after the 1998 tests. Both had no choice as Congress had passed legislation tying their hands.

George W. Bush lifted the sanctions after the 9/11 attacks and poured billions of dollars into the Pakistani army, much of it unaccounted for, in return for Pakistan's help again in Afghanistan. Bush's civilian nuclear deal with India in 2005 left many Pakistanis angry at what they view as a double standard that gives India access to technology denied to Pakistan.

President Barack Obama has inherited a full agenda with Pakistan, burdened by the war in Afghanistan, the hunt for Al Qaeda and internal crisis inside Pakistan. But the nuclear issue will not go away. Obama's call for a world without nuclear weapons and his pursuit of Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will inevitably mean arms control will return to the US-Pakistan agenda. Islamabad already presses for a civil nuclear deal like India's, but there is virtually no chance of such a deal. The international community and the Congress would oppose it given Pakistan's history of proliferation.

In the meantime Americans should stay away from idle talk in newspaper op-eds and elsewhere about "securing" Pakistan's weapons by force. Such chatter is not only unrealistic, but counterproductive and poisons the atmosphere for serious work with Pakistan on nuclear security. General Khan rightly called it "very dangerous." It gives the jihadists further ammunition for their charge that the United States, in cahoots with India and Israel, secretly plans to disarm the only Muslim state with a bomb.

Now the entire relationship is threatened by the case of Raymond Davis, a US diplomat accused of murdering two Pakistanis in Lahore. Washington wants him freed citing diplomatic immunity, many Pakistanis demand his trial in Pakistan. Some in Congress want to cut aid, which will only antagonize Pakistanis more.

The US needs a policy toward Pakistan and its weapons that emphasizes constancy, consistency and an end to double standards. Increasingly, people in Pakistan recognize that the existential threat to their freedoms comes from within, from jihadists like the Taliban and Al Qaeda, not from India or America. Now is the time to help them and ensure a rational hand is on the nuclear arsenal.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in the Brookings Institution. A former CIA officer, he chaired President Barack Obama's strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. Reprinted with permission from the Yale Center on Globalization