THE recent deterioration in Pakistan-US relations was precipitated by differences over policies on Afghanistan and terrorism. These differences could lead to a full-blown crisis in relations or a pragmatic compromise. For the long term, however, the most vital issue for the bilateral relationship will be the US position on Pakistan’s determination to resist Indian domination and defend itself against Indian aggression.
It is a measure of the discrimination and dissonance of current global politics that even as the world’s major powers are embarked on a massive expansion and modernisation of their nuclear and strategic weapons and capabilities, the nuclear threat is perceived to emerge from North Korea and Iran. Both have been threatened with the use force to eliminate their nuclear and missile programmes.
Most Pakistani strategic thinkers dismiss the ability of any foreign power to neutralise Pakistan’s well-developed nuclear and missile capabilities. Yet, Pakistan cannot afford any complacency. It must analyse the basis for US assertions that it can militarily enforce denuclearisation on North Korea, which is now a full-fledged nuclear and missile weapons state.
Pakistan has a large stockpile of nuclear weapons and fissile materials and a range of delivery systems and counter-force capabilities, which cannot be seized or easily destroyed. But, given the evolving US-India strategic alliance, and past and present US policies, it must be presumed that the US and India will redouble their efforts to retard, restrict and, if possible, neutralise Pakistan’s nuclear and strategic capabilities.
Pakistan needs to build its responses to possible scenarios it may face in a future crisis with India.
In the final years of the Obama administration, the US made a concerted effort to persuade Pakistan to refrain from deploying short-range (tactical or theatre) nuclear weapons; halt development of long-range missiles and stop further production of fissile materials. These demands were firmly rejected by Islamabad since they would have compromised Pakistan’s ‘full-spectrum deterrence’ designed to counter India’s Cold Start doctrine. It remains to be seen if these demands will be revived by the Trump administration.
The US, meanwhile, continues to constrain Pakistan’s strategic programmes especially those that aim to develop a response to India’s emerging capabilities (anti-ballistic missiles, long-range missiles, nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers). The recent arbitrary ‘blacklisting’ of several Pakistani companies by the US for allegedly attempting to import advanced technology products is the latest example of the targeted restraints on Pakistan.
The US could seek to expand and formalise such unilateral restrictions against Pakistan and to internationalise them by using various (specious) rationales: Pakistan’s non-cooperation on proliferation issues; new allegations of proliferation activities; safety concerns regarding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and fissile material stockpiles, including scenarios involving their takeover by Islamist militants or the radicalisation of the Pakistan Army; and the designation of Pakistan as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’, the route that is being most vigorously promoted by India and the US.
Islamabad needs to exercise vigilance internally and in all relevant institutions to prevent and counter attempts by the US or India to develop such ‘rationales’ to constrain Pakistan’s strategic programmes. Similarly, subversion and sabotage against Pakistan’s strategic facilities is an ever-present threat. Engineered attacks on these facilities could in turn be used to justify external monitoring and control of these assets.
An existential threat could arise in the event of another major India-Pakistan conflict. Without doubt, both India and the US will attempt to stop Pakistan from threatening a nuclear response even if the conflict is the consequence of Indian aggression. This attempt could take several escalatory dimensions.
First, a diplomatic campaign to prohibit Pakistan from threatening a nuclear response, through a resolution of the UN Security Council, General Assembly and/or other bodies. Two, an open threat of collective action by the US and its allies, possibly with India, to prevent Pakistan from resorting to the nuclear ‘option’. Three, a clandestine operation to neutralise Pakistan’s weapons and delivery systems, including cyber attacks. And four, in extremis, pre-emptive strikes against Pakistan’s nuclear and strategic capabilities.
The ‘hardware’ that Pakistan must develop and acquire to face these scenarios can be easily identified: a significant expansion of its nuclear warheads and missile systems; dispersal and disguise of nuclear and missile locations; hardened silos for some missile systems; one/two ABM systems (to protect command/control centres); deployment of nuclear submarines equipped with long-range nuclear missiles.
The diplomatic strategy deployed to counter the anticipated threats is as important as the ‘hardware’.
The first and most important element of the strategy should be to maintain China’s full support for Pakistan’s policies and postures on the entire range of the nuclear and strategic challenges outlined here. Without Chinese support, especially in the Security Council, Pakistan could be ‘outlawed’ and end up in a ‘North Korean’ situation.
Second, Pakistan should put forward several credible proposals to India for mutual and reciprocal nuclear and conventional arms control and restraint, such as: full transparency on troop movements, limits on size of military exercises, creation of ‘no force’ and ‘low force’ zones, proposal for mutually agreed limits on nuclear warheads and delivery systems, a bilateral ABM ban treaty. These proposals could be put bilaterally to India, advanced in international forums, including the Security Council, or conveyed to the US for its Indian ally.
Such an initiative would demonstrate Pakistan’s sincere desire for conflict avoidance and strategic stability in South Asia and reverse the negative public perceptions disseminated by the Indian and US media.
Third, Pakistan should mobilise a group of small and medium states in international disarmament forums to oppose the massive nuclear rearmament planned by the US (see US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review), which is likely to instigate a new and destabilising global arms race.
Fourth, Pakistan should press the US for termination of the discriminatory restrictions against Pakistan’s strategic programmes as an essential part of any effort to re-establish cooperative relations between the two countries. As a first step, the US should offer Pakistan civilian nuclear cooperation and NSG membership on an equal footing with India. This will be an acid test of America’s intentions towards Pakistan’s strategic capabilities.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2018