The security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

By | May 19, 2009

During the last week of April, I visited four cities in Pakistan (Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Karachi). The purpose of the trip was to discuss a December 2008 Center for American Progress report that I coauthored, Partnership for Progress: Advancing a New Strategy for Prosperity and Stability in Pakistan and the Region.

Although this was my first trip to Pakistan, one of the two other colleagues who accompanied me had visited the country on three previous occasions. For two reasons, we had exceptional access to some 60 current and former civilian and military government officials (including a two-hour visit to the ISI headquarters), members of the media and academia, and heads of nongovernmental organizations. First, one of the members of the working group who helped us formulate the report is now the Pakistani ambassador to the United States. Second, several of our colleagues from the Center for American Progress have moved into key positions in the Obama administration. Moreover, since we aren’t in government, it was easier for us to challenge the bromides that some officials peddle.

Before the visit, I knew Pakistan was facing several critical political, economic, and security problems. Still, there were some hopeful signs: Pakistan held free and fair elections in February 2008; the country has an independent judiciary and a vibrant civil society and media; and the Obama administration and Congress were finally making U.S. relations with Pakistan a priority.

That said, the day we arrived, the U.S. media gave the impression that Pakistan was in dire straits. Some were going so far as to compare the current condition of Pakistan to that of contemporary Somalia, a failed state already in or about to be engulfed in chaos. Similarly, some high-level officials in the Obama administration contend Pakistan resembles Iran in 1979, a Muslim country about to be taken over by a group of radical Islamists. Others see Islamabad as Saigon in 1975, a capital city about to fall to an advancing enemy. Finally, some analysts compare today’s Pakistan to that of Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the Taliban stepped into a chaotic situation and restored order.

After my trip, though, I believe that all of these comparisons are inaccurate and overstated. Pakistan isn’t about to descend into chaos, nor will it be taken over by the Taliban any time soon.

The trip reinforced my belief that Pakistan has a great many political, economic, and social problems that prevent it from achieving its full potential. But the majority of the population wants the duly constituted government to fulfill its responsibilities to promote the general welfare and provide for the common defense. They aren’t looking to some outside force such as the Taliban to assume control of the country and solve these problems. Unlike Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban in Pakistan isn’t seen as a group capable of imposing order on a chaotic situation. Rather, the Taliban is seen as an organization trying to upset the existing order. For instance, the majority of the Pakistani population urged the government to take forceful action against the Taliban when it reneged on its agreement in the Swat District.

Moreover, at this time, the Pakistani Army has no desire to seize political power, nor will it let the Taliban take control of Pakistan proper or seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The Pakistani Army jealously guards its reputation. In fact, it places a higher priority on its reputation and its interest than that of the country. The army knows that if it staged a coup at this time, it would become responsible for all of the country’s economic and social problems.

Likewise, the Pakistani military, which numbers about 1 million soldiers, has enough brute force to prevent the Taliban from breaking out of the rural areas of the frontier provinces and into the heart of Pakistan, even if it keeps a large contingent on the border with India. Since the army knows that the collateral damage–including creating refugees–would be significant if it uses force, it won’t take action until ordered to do so by the prime minister and the Parliament.

I’m also convinced that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons won’t be allowed to fall into the hands of the insurgents. This sentiment is shared by Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander, and Adm. Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the president himself. In a recent interview with Newsweek, Obama said, “We have confidence that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe; that the Pakistani military is equipped to prevent extremists from taking over those arsenals.”

Why? Because even though the program originally was started by a civilian, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the 1970s, the weapons now are firmly under the control of the Pakistani Army; the army sees them as its main counterweight to India’s large conventional forces and nuclear capabilities, which it views as the real existential threat to Pakistan. That’s exactly why it’s currently increasing its nuclear arsenal. In addition, over the past three years, Washington has made a $100-million investment to improve Pakistan’s nuclear weapon safeguards. (The Pakistanis won’t let us see how this money was spent because they fear that we will use this information to disable the nukes.)

It’s also important to note that Islamabad’s intelligence service, or ISI, which has been a renegade operation for nearly two decades, has been brought under the army’s control. In fact, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the current Pakistani Army Chief of Staff, once headed the ISI, and the high-level officials in that agency are all his appointees and thus, very loyal to him.

Lastly, the Pakistani Army is composed mostly of Punjabis, and the Taliban insurgents are entirely Pashtun. Therefore, the army won’t let these insurgents, who they see as outsiders, take control of the heart of Pakistan (as opposed to the frontier areas) or the nuclear weapons.

Given the strategic location of Pakistan and the fact that it has nuclear weapons, it’s easy to see why some might embrace a worst-case scenario. But based on my visit, I don’t buy it at this time.

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