Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Pakistan’s Troubling Nukes

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 12, 2009

pakistanThe Sunday New York Times Magazine ran an interesting piece on the question of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal last weekend, focusing largely on the twin concepts of stockpile security and political stability. It’s a lengthy read, but well worth the time; you can find it here.

The article focuses mainly on the efforts and difficulties of one Khalid Kidwai, the Director of Pakistan’s Office of Strategic Plans. Mr. Kidwai is, effectively, in charge of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and arsenal whose existence creates for Mr. Kidwai many foes. The article speaks of Indian saboteurs, alQaeda penetration agents, various and sundry other Islamist groups seeking the entree to the power of the atom, and American commandos whom Kidwai presumes are waiting at the ready to swoop in and take Pakistan’s arsenal back to America at the first sign of major instability within Pakistan.

Pakistan poses a unique problem for the United States, and, indeed, the Western world. A technologically advanced nation still buried in crushing poverty, a modern state struggling with an immense Medieval fundamentalist movement, an urban nation bounded by a lawless mountain territory that it can exercise no control over, Pakistan is the prototypical land of contradiction. That contradiction extends, troublingly, to the fact that while this is a state advanced enough to create and use nuclear weapons, it is also backwards enough to give the world little or no confidence in its stewardship of those weapons.

Pakistan’s internal justification for being a nuclear-armed state is clear enough on the surface levels– it sits next door to and upon land formerly owned by the much large India, which has been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades and has many clear strategic advantages over Pakistan, not the least of which is the sheer size of its population. Throughout the latter days of the Cold War, the United States & Soviet Union vied for the friendship and alliance of these putatively “non-aligned” nations, with India favoring Russia while Pakistan has gravitated towards American arms and power. One result of that constant four-handed gamesmanship was that neither the Soviets nor the Americans were willing to bring much pressure on nations like India, Pakistan or even South Africa to halt their weapons research; doing so too overtly would decisively push any of these nations to the orbit of the rival Great Power, thus we held our collective tongues. As a result India and Pakistan made all of the necessary moves to create nuclear weapons technology while South Africa built its first atomic weapons and dismantled them. With the knowledge that India was proceeding at full pace towards atomic and eventually nuclear weapons, Pakistan felt it had no choice but to reciprocate.

Pakistan’s path to nuclear weaponry was marked by two visionary scientist who contributed greatly not just to Pakistan’s ability to field a nuclear arsenal but also to the world’s disquiet over the arsenal’s presence. A.Q. Khan is a name well known– the father of Pakistan’s program, Khan freelanced his knowledge, plans (both created and stolen), and technical expertise to other states desiring nuclear weapons, states such as Iran, North Korea, Libya, and supposedly Syria. The question of whether his motivations were strictly monetary or if they were influenced by his religious beliefs remains somewhat open; the Pakistanis have kept Khan under house arrest and have not made him available to Western intelligence agencies of civilian entities to answer questions. The other scientist was Sultan Bashirood Mahmood, and he is a stickier situation– an avowed Islamist and Islamic Fundamentalist who has referred to Pakistan’s stockpile as the “Islamic Bomb” and who has sought to share his knowledge and expertise to countries and groups based on their “Islamic Purity” to balance out the “Zionist” bomb.

Mr. Kidwai surely has his work cut out for him.

Further complicating a picture already crazyquilt with concerns over security and stewardship is the fact that Pakistan is, to be kind, a political mess. From the open air arms bazaars of Peshawar, where a NATO supply depot & convoy was just shot up, from the Khyber Pass, the Main Supply Route for US forces in Afghanistan which was recently closed by Pakistan due to operations against rebellious tribes, to the madrassas and militant mosques of the big cities, Pakistan is sure of only one politically reality every night when she goes to bed and upon awakening every morning– that today could be the day.

Politically troubled almost since its inception, Pakistan has in recent years gone through a series of asassinaitons, attempted and completed coups, a military dictatorship and democratically elected leaders whose elections were the subject of much scrutiny & derision. Their own government institutions are totally unreliable; the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, has worked openly against Pakistan’s previous three administrations and is an exporter and facilitator of terrorist operations– the latest of which appears to have been the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. The ISI was also the major facilitator of the Taleban takeover of neighboring Afghanistan, with all the excesses and terrorist attacks that entailed. The ISI shares a compound with Kidwai’s own nuclear security operation and is rumored to have the program itself thoroughly infiltrated.

Amongst those vying for political control in Pakistan are vehement anti-Indians, who seek a war over the disputed province of Kashmir, organized fundamentalist cliques, elements from within the ISI, democratic reformers and latter-day communists. The military, which installed Pervez Musharraff, also can never be counted out as the next government of Pakistan. The “tribal areas” of Pakistan, places like Baluchistan and Waziristan, also harbor large armed bands of dedicated Islamists who are believed to be sheltering Osama bin Laden and are a tremendous force for political instability within Pakistan.

What would happen if the ISI, with its fundamentalist leanings and penchant for large scale anti-Western terrorist operations, teamed up with their allies in the tribal regions or with one of the urban Islamist factions to topple the government and install their own? In such a scenario we would be looking at a government with similar religio-political leanings as those held by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary forces in Iran… but with a highly organized paramilitary/intelligence operation already up and running to enforce internal security and export trouble.

In such a scenario, the first and most hopeful outcome would be for the military to fight it out with ISI and the Islamists in the streets; such a happening is foreseeable as a possibility, but not terribly likely, The fact is that the Pakistani Army & Air Force, equipped largely with modern American weaponry, are shot through with Islamists and Islamist sympathizers; I would be surprised to see them fighting to keep Pakistan a secular nation in the face of an Islamist coup.

A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that the coup takes hold quickly and with the support of the military, leaving the United States with a series of choices– intervene? Put Mr. Kidwai’s notional American commandos into action to take out Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure? Wait and hope for the best? Encourage India to move on Pakistan?

There is, of course, no opportunity for large scale military intervention into an Islamist coup in Pakistan for America– it would be totally unsustainable and our forces would be constantly in an environment perhaps worse than the one prophesied for the invasion of Japan. Are those commandos waiting? In the waning months of the Musharraf egime in 2008, possibly, perhaps even with the knowledge of Mr. Musharraf. Now, that is highly unlikely– we most likely don’t even know the extent of their dispersion of the nuclear force in times of peace, much less crisis. India would not be inclined to go to war with Pakistan under Islamist, either– much too likely that when India ran roughshod over the smaller Pakistani forces that the Islamabad regime may see a nuclear exchange as an inviting scenario.

The question quickly devolves to this– do we want an extremely hostile Islamic nation sitting idly around looking for mischief and with the connections to make it or do we act precipitously to take out their ability to put our cities at risk through low-tech deliverable nuclear warheads?

Quite a question, that.

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