06/05/2013 - 08:59

Deterring nuclear terrorism: Reflections from Islamabad

If you asked strategy and security scholars in Islamabad to assess how US deterrence of terrorist attacks through nuclear policy affects security, nonproliferation efforts, and disarmament initiatives, most responses would probably focus on the uncertainties inherent in US policy. For example, certain operational aspects of combating terrorism through nuclear deterrence are very unclear -- how would the United States establish that a state was complicit in an act of nuclear terrorism? How would miscalculation and misjudgment be guarded against? But the truth is that many scholars in Pakistan have never seriously considered the implications of the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review, and discussion of it has been rather negligible.

In my own view, deterring terrorist attacks by leaving open the possibility of using nuclear weapons represents a wide disproportionality between policy ends and operational means. The gap is so wide, in fact, that such a policy seems ineffective as a deterrent. To be sure, the worth of nuclear weapons in deterring asymmetric threats is difficult to test empirically. But nuclear weapons did nothing to prevent the gruesome terrorist attacks carried out against the United States in 2001 and Britain in 2005.

The Nuclear Posture Review claims that the United States is working to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs, but such a reduction is not clearly discernible in the policy itself. To the contrary: Linking nuclear deterrence with terrorism overrates the effectiveness of deterrence and seems from an outsider's perspective only to reinforce the value that US security policy accords to nuclear weapons. Thus it creates serious challenges for proponents of nonproliferation and disarmament in states with small nuclear arsenals, and in that sense undermines the existing nonproliferation regime.

So if US policy on nuclear deterrence contributes little to deterrence and even less to international security, what would a more effective approach consist of? Essentially, it would involve denying access to sensitive materials while also threatening to use conventional military power against states that aid terrorists. This would be the right approach not only from a deterrence but also from a nonproliferation perspective: Though it would not persuade states with small nuclear arsenals to disarm, it would at least undermine the symbolic value of nuclear weapons.

No threat. The Nuclear Posture Review has attracted relatively little notice in Pakistan because the country faces myriad domestic and external challenges that soak up attention -- in particular, an ongoing struggle against terrorism. But when attention does turn to nuclear issues, a few themes recur and resonate, all of them involving India: the 2008 India-US nuclear cooperation deal and its implications for nonproliferation; India's infamous Cold Start military doctrine (which envisions quick Indian strikes against Pakistan that do not cross Islamabad's nuclear threshold); and India's program for ballistic missile defense. And while Pakistan's military doctrine identifies terrorism as the nation's top security concern, nuclear terrorism in particular is not an issue that gains much traction.

When Pakistanis do consider nuclear terrorism, opinions differ on how serious a threat it represents. Some see it as a worrisome possibility; some believe it is an exaggerated danger. But in Islamabad a broad consensus prevails about the need to address even the remotest possibility of nuclear terrorism. Consequently, Pakistan has responded positively to major nonproliferation initiatives -- the Nuclear Security Summits, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (which obligates states to establish domestic controls against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction).

Regarding the concerns often voiced by US analysts and aired by Western media that terrorists might obtain nuclear weapons or materials from within Pakistan, Islamabad appears confident in its ability to prevent any such eventuality. This, combined with the confidence that Pakistan draws from its close cooperation with the United States, prevents Pakistanis from perceiving US nuclear deterrence policy as a threat. Pakistan's threat perceptions continue to focus elsewhere.

Nonetheless, disenchantment with the United States is heavily reflected in Pakistan's popular discourse. The disenchantment mainly centers on drone attacks and the implications of the Indo-US strategic partnership. The operation that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death provoked concern in Pakistan's media, but the incident does not appear to have had a lasting impact on the country's threat perception vis-à-vis the United States. And only amateurs speculate about US plans to destroy Pakistan's nuclear weapons or sabotage its strategic capabilities. The scholarly literature does not echo such alarmism, and policy-making circles are not interested in these far-fetched theories. As might be expected in any nuclear-armed state, Pakistani decision makers do emphasize that Pakistan will not close its eyes to even the remotest threats to its safety and security. But US nuclear deterrence policy is not perceived as a threat.