By K.N. Pandita
In his speech in Prague in 2009, President Obama touched on an important subject for the first time. He talked about security against nuclear terror, meaning securing nuclear arsenals against falling in the hands of non-State actors. A year later, the first meeting of stakeholders (NSS) numbering no fewer than 53, was held in Washington to deliberate and gradually inch towards a consensus formula of how nuclear arsenals could be safeguarded.
The fourth and perhaps the final meeting of the NSS, to which India and Pakistan have also been invited, is to be held in Washington 31 March-1 April, 2016. President Putin of Russia has declined to participate.
India and Pakistan, two nuclear countries in South Asia count fairly well in the deliberations and in the decision likely to come out of the final round of talks.
In a news briefing in Washington in the third week of October 2015, Pakistan foreign secretary, Aizaz Chaudhury disclosed for the first time that his country had made low-yield nuclear tactical weapons “for use in the event of a sudden attack by its larger neighbor.”
Two days later, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with President Obama. Reports are that they talked about Pakistan’s nuclear programme including Afghanistan and militant groups such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba both on banned organizations list of the US.
Quoting Pervez Hoodhbhoy, a nuclear physicist and independent security analyst based in Lahore, BBC reported in a news commentary on October 21, 2015, “The fact that Pakistan was making small tactical nuclear weapons was clear to the world from the day Pakistan started its missile programme. It meant that Pakistan had developed low – yield nuclear warheads to be delivered by those missiles at short ranges in a battlefield having localized impact, unlike big bombs designed to destroy cities.”
Experts say that the 2011 testing of nuclear-capable Nasr missile by Pakistan with a 60 kilometers range was an indication that Pakistan was building an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons for use in a theater of war.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based expert on defence and security issues, suspects that Pakistan may have designed even smaller nuclear weapons, capable of being shot from a specially-designed gun.
Objectively speaking, battlefield weapons could be more dangerous than larger weapons because in the event of a conflict, they will need to be spread out, deployed at multiple locations closer to the targets, and would need to be fired at short notice. BBC made the cryptic remark that “evidently, Pakistan has acquired this technology from China and it is not possible to block that pipeline.”
The question is whether nuclear command and control procedures will always be adequately ensured for all the missile units deployed across the theatre?
In addition to this concern, should not western powers and the US in particular take note of the fact that Pakistan developed these weapons despite nuclear-related international sanctions in force since 1998 after it carried out its first nuclear test?
How then is the US reacting to this situation in the context of NSS programme? Let us put it succinctly. Speaking during a hearing on Pakistan convened by House Foreign Affairs Committee, US Special Representative for Af-Pak, Richard Olson said that Obama administration shares the concerns of lawmakers particularly about the development of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. “We are concerned most by the pace and scope of Pakistan’s missile program, including its pursuit of nuclear systems”, he said.
Replying to a question from Congressman Brian Higgins, Olson said that the US was concerned a conventional conflict in Southwest Asia could escalate to include nuclear use as well as the increased security challenges that accompany growing stockpiles. He said the US had a very active dialogue at the highest levels with the Pakistanis in which US’ concerns were stated.
US official circles assert they have urged Pakistan to restrain her nuclear weapons and missile development that might invite increased risk to nuclear safety, security or strategic stability.
On this basis US lawmakers have asked their government to be tough on Islamabad “as it does not seem to be sincere in improving ties with India and has accelerated the pace of arsenals’ production.”
According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Pakistan could have 350 nuclear warheads in the next decade, becoming the world’s third biggest nuclear power, outpacing India, France, China and the UK. Expressing himself forcefully on the subject, Higgins said, “We have to call them (Pakistan) out on this double game they have been playing, not this year, not last year, not five years, but for the past 15 years …. Pakistan, let’s be truthful about this, plays a double game. They are our military partner, but they are the protector and the patron of our enemies. US aid to Pakistan economic and military has averaged USD 2 billion a year.”
NSS and particularly, the US, have to know that Pakistan with 189 million population — many of them Islamic extremists— has nuclear weapons. To have Islamic extremists with nuclear weapons is a primary goal of al-Qaeda and it would be a major victory for them and the outgrowth of al-Qaeda namely the Islamic State, avers Higgins.
Covering the strategic dialogue between high powered- Pakistani delegation led by Adviser Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, with their American counterpart in Washington, the Webdesk reported on 9 March that “Sartaj Aziz insisted that Islamabad would not accept any unilateral curb on its programme. Any reduction must also apply to India and it must address the conventional imbalance between the two countries.” He pointed out that Pakistan did not have the resources to match India’s ever-increasing arsenal of conventional weapons and was forced to depend on non-conventional means to defend it.” Another important statement which Aziz made on that day was that Pakistan was hosting some Taliban leaders.
It is clear that Pakistan has decided to use nuclear option in case of war with India and that it is not ruling out the possibility of hosting Taliban for whatever purposes.
What then should be the foremost agenda of the 4th NSS meeting in Washington on 31 March? Obviously, it should be a detailed review of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the backdrop of how Islamabad tries to justify its relentless effort of increasing nuclear stockpile including limited tactical nuclear weapon.
However, deeper study in the scenario throws up contradiction in the words and practice of the US. The joint statement issued by Kerry and Sartaj after the conclusion of strategic dialogue belies the stated intentions of the US. The joint statement is a long eulogy on the “achievements” of Pakistan in meeting the challenge of the terrorists in the northern part of the country. John Kerry had full-throated praises and encomiums for Pakistani army fighting the “terrorists” in Pakistan’s north but not a single word or hint about the terrorist engines on Pakistani soil working against India and Afghanistan. Proliferation of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and induction of tactical nuclear weapons in that arsenal did not figure in their joint statement.
Newsdesk of February 29, 2016 referred to a transcript released in Washington showing Secretary Kerry arguing in two congressional hearings that “the US has been working really hard” to advance a rapprochement between Islamabad and India. In one statement he indirectly confirmed media reports that the US was quietly encouraging the two prime ministers to hold bilateral talks.
How he looks at the stand-off between India and Pakistan, is reflected in his statement that Pakistan has deployed 150,000 to 180,000 troops along the Pak-Afghan border and in case of a conflict with India, Pakistan will have to redeploy bulk of its forces on her eastern front. Thus what Kerry actually wants Pakistan to do is to fight against the Al Qaeda and Taliban outfits on her western front and keep the so-called non-state actors active on her eastern front against India.
The Webdesk of March 9 said that unlike it did with Iran the US does not want Pakistan to shut down its nuclear programme. But it does want Islamabad to reduce the size of its arsenal.
During a testimony in the Senate where the bill against sale of 8 F-16 to Pakistan was defeated by 71 to 24 votes, Secretary Kerry passionately defended sale of Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 nuclear fighter jets to Pakistan, saying that US is committed to boosting Pakistan’s strategic capabilities in its war against terrorists.
In other words Kerry means to say that only the Taliban and Al Qaeda outfits who are fighting against Pakistan in KP region are the terrorists Pakistan should fight against and the scores of other terrorist groups in Pakistan are outside the pale of terrorism. Mumbai attack and recent attack on Pathankot airbase are no terrorist activities for him.
Sale of nuclear powered 8 F-16s apart, the Obama administration in February 2015 asked the US Congress to provide more than $ 1 billion in aid to Pakistan including a six fold increase in foreign military financing. The budget proposal described Pakistan as a “strategically important nation” and the proposed US assistance “will strengthen its military in fight against extremism, will increase safety of nuclear installations”
This lays bare the double speak of the US on much trumpeted Nuclear Security Summit to which President Obama has invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to participate.
All this notwithstanding, BBC said in its commentary of 9 March that there are suggestions that US may offer Pakistan membership of the Nuclear Supplies Group, with legitimate access to available research and technology, in return for some curbs on fissile material production an its missile programme. Sartaj Aziz already reacted by saying that Pakistan will not accept any unilateral curbs unless same are applied to India.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre for Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).