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Value of perceptions: NCA meeting

Updated September 06, 2013

THE National Command Authority, the apex nuclear oversight body, met on Thursday in what appears to be — though there was no official clarification — a quick damage-control exercise in response to revelations in The Washington Post about America’s efforts to spy on the Pakis-tani nuclear programme. Several points need to be made here. First, while nothing should ever be taken for granted when it comes to anything nuclear related, the doomsday scenario of Pakistan’s nuclear programme being compromised by Islamist militants is trotted out all too easily, all too often and with a glibness that seems utterly disconnected from the reality of the many steps taken to ensure the safety and security of the nuclear deterrent. Yes, Pakistan has a terrorism problem, a deep and pervasive one, but that does not automatically equate to the country’s nuclear assets being vulnerable to theft or attack.

Now to the issue of what the NCA meeting was about. To the public and the outside world, a calm and reassuring message has been sent: the nuclear assets are safe and secure and the guardians of the programme are vigilant and alert. That is a sensible and mature response, in keeping with the state’s attempts — ever since the AQ Khan saga erupted — to project confidence while also being suitably cautious, sober and grounded in reality. While cold, hard facts are of utmost importance, when it comes to all things nuclear, perceptions are also relevant. A world that looks at Pakistan and dreads nuclear paraphernalia mixing with the severe terrorism and militancy problem here needs to be recognised — and is a perception that slowly and methodically needs to be rolled back, if Pakistan’s standing in the international community is to be improved. There was nothing intrinsically new about the threat assessments underlying the massive surveillance and intel-ligence-gathering effort by the US that The Washington Post has revealed. What they do confirm, however, is that the country’s leadership cannot be blithe or dismissive about the international community’s fears when it comes to Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

There was, though, another aspect to yesterday’s meeting: the first-ever articulation from the NCA platform of “full spectrum deterrence capability”, a military doctrine developed in recent years that envisages a role for tactical nuclear weapons to plug the gap between conventional and strategic deterrence. That is significant, and raises two questions. One, does the theoretically civilian-led NCA understand the implications for national security strategy? Two, has anyone thought to question the Strategic Plans Division assumptions that underlie “full spectrum deterrence capability”? To neither question does there appear to be a reassuring answer.