Scare Pakistan and Worry About its Nuclear Triggers

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

September 25, 2003

Pakistan has perhaps taken more risks than any other nation in America’s “war on terror.” Yet it remains most insecure about its relations with Washington. In fact Pakistan’s extensive and risky cooperation with the United States has done little to alleviate its own security dilemmas.

Pakistan remains exposed to the dangers of pre-emptive strikes from two of America’s other close allies in the war on terror ­ India and Israel. Even when it comes to its relations with the United States, Pakistan is not fully reassured. Washington seems to maintain a complex strategy that combines economic assistance to reward Pakistan for its cooperation in fighting terrorism with coercive diplomacy. In a strange way, and in spite of being a close ally of the world’s most dominant power, Pakistan continues to live in a Hobbesian world.

Insecurity can lead nations to monumental irrationality. Notice how a heightened sense of vulnerability after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks led US foreign policy decision-makers from one monumental blunder to another. Pakistanis, especially the country’s Islamists, have been made to feel their nation is being bullied into working against its own interests, its own people and its faith. Their anger, resentment and fear are increasing. At seminar after seminar on South Asian security and on the war on terror, I hear Pakistanis express deep concern, confusion and suspicions about Washington’s policies, and in particular about the emergence of a new anti-Pakistan axis that includes the US, Israel and India.

Pakistan essentially identifies three dangers to its national security: First, a conventional strike by India from the Kashmir border region or a strategic strike by India against Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Second, a pre-emptive strike by Israel against Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, whether with India’s direct assistance or by using India as a base. And third, a pre-emptive strike by the US against Pakistan’s nuclear facilities to prevent them from becoming available to Islamists who might easily come to power in Islamabad.

Every nightmare scenario for Pakistan involves a threat to its nuclear capability from either one or a combination of the three states ­ India, Israel and the United States. All three today identify “Islamic terrorism” as the main threat to their own security, and their ultimate fear is that jihadis will arm themselves with nukes.
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, developed primarily to defend against a conventionally superior India, seems to have increased the possibility of Pakistan becoming a victim of attacks from more powerful nations both far and near, rather than making the country more secure. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for Iran.

The question that Washington needs to address, however, is more complex and requires more subtle geopolitical analysis than the Bush administration has been indulging in lately. Can the world in general and India, Israel and the United States in particular afford to make a nuclear-armed nation feel confused and insecure about its relations with them? Pakistan’s defense strategy is based on a “first strike” policy. Very simply, this means that when in grave danger, especially of being divested of their nuclear assets, the Pakistanis will trigger their nukes. Bear in mind this is the policy of the country’s secular, rational generals, not crazy mullahs.

In other words, we do not have to wait for Pakistani nukes to fall into the hands of Taleban types before we see them possibly being employed. All that needs to be done is for the present Pakistani leadership to be sufficiently scared. Nothing is more alarming to the military establishment in Pakistan than the threat to its nuclear weapons.

Is Washington scaring the Pakistanis? Yes it is. But things have not yet reached dangerous levels. However, who knows what Pakistan’s threshold level is? How much pressure can the country handle? Washington continues to insinuate that Pakistan has been sharing its nuclear secrets with Iran and North Korea. It also continues to express its anxieties about the stability of Pakistan’s command and control structure and the possibility that Pakistani nukes will fall into the hands of militant Muslims. Despite Pakistan’s repeated reassurances on both counts, Washington continues to have its doubts.

Every time Indians meet with Israelis, the conversation is the same. Israelis ask: “What can you do for us?” And Indians answer: “What are you going to do about Pakistan?” So far Israel has not expressed much concern about Pakistani nukes; it is more worried about the Iranian nuclear program. However, growing Indo-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation and the Indo-American military exercises in Kashmir last month have definitely raised the fear barometer in Islamabad.

The US must understand that it cannot enhance its own security by making Pakistan feel insecure. While it works to keep Taleban types out of power and out of range of the nuclear buttons in Pakistan, it must also work to reduce the stress and uncertainty in the minds of those who now already have their fingers on the nuclear buttons.

The Bush administration can take the following concrete steps to allay mutual fears on all sides:

First, Washington can use the war on terror to develop a semi-formal regional security institution involving the US, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The objective would be to build confidence between the parties by starting with a basic limited goal that is in the interest of all four nations, namely keeping Taleban types out of power in Southwest Asia and maintaining regional stability. This setup may also come in handy as a forum for a future Indo-Pakistani peace process and for resolving the Kashmir issue through a series of regional summits.

Second, the US must expand its existing security commitments to Israel to include nuclear defense. This guarantee should keep the Israelis from destabilizing other countries in pursuit of real or imagined threats. An institutional American security interest in Southwest Asia will also help reduce Israeli fears about Pakistani nukes.

Finally, the US must learn that it cannot indefinitely pursue an instrumentalist approach when it comes to the Pakistanis. It cannot force Pakistan to destabilize the domestic and international equilibriums it has fashioned in order to advance US interests, without Washington’s also taking steps to ensure that Pakistan is not over-exposed to strategic threats. A disregard for Pakistan’s domestic politics is what gave the country’s Islamist parties a historically unprecedented victory in the last elections, contributing to current fears in the US, Israel and India.

Before the nukes are triggered, Washington must learn to nurture its allies while also nudging them toward safer policies and pro-American postures.