ISLAMABAD: US President Joe Biden’s surprise comment on Pakistan’s nuclear programme has left the government, which had been determinedly working for fixing the troubled bilateral relationship, gobsmacked.

The reactions from the government and other political leaders seemed to have been formulated on the basis of historical concerns about safety of nuclear arsenal rather than on the actual comments delivered by President Biden. Everyone looked to have struggled in comprehending Biden’s remarks because those had been delivered without explaining the context of the concern.

The assertion that “And what I think is maybe one of the most dangerous nations in the world: Pakistan. Nuclear weapons without any cohesion,” was made while listing the global threats facing the United States in the evolving international environment instead of a standalone threat.

Dean of Faculty of Aerospace and Strategic Studies at Air University Dr Adil Sultan, who has previously remained a senior official at Strategic Plans Division, said: “President Biden was most likely referring to political instability in a country with nuclear weapons. He did not question nuclear security of Pakistan and this was not the issue being referred in the transcript available on the White House website.”

Dr Sultan further said: “The reaction by the media and almost all the political parties seems to be misdirected. As a result of this controversy we may have ourselves brought focus on an issue (threat to nuclear arsenal) that was never under discussion.”

Pakistan had been off Biden’s priorities for a while, therefore, the sudden mention was definitely not without a reason. It could have been a result of some recent briefing that he may have received on situation in Pakistan.

One would be misplaced to think that nuclear security in Pakistan was no more of a concern to US. Ely Ratner, US assistant secretary of defense, had only last month reminded that “US interests associated with defense partnership with Pakistan” were “primarily focused on counterterrorism and nuclear security.”

Washington does not solely see nuclear security from the perspective of the security architecture’s ability to to protect and defend the N-arsenal, though its core concern is that nukes can fall in the hands of extremists. There is a broader context to the issue, which must be taken into consideration.

Toby Dalton, Co-director Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program in Washington, seems to share this view.

In a conversation on this issue on Twitter, he said: “It is possible to have good nuclear security practices but as a country still be insecure. TTP resurgence and political chaos brings back fears from the last decade. That’s the perception, I think.”

Pakistan is said to be plagued by a range of issues – political instability, economic crisis, and militancy. Together, these problems heighten concerns about stability in the country. In recent months, political polarisation has peaked, while the economic crisis has deepened. Even though, the country has entered an IMF programme, economic pain for the people continues to increase. In this situation, when the outside world looks at Pakistan it sees signs of trouble here.

That assessment is complicated by the reports of return of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and resurgence of terrorism and that too in the backdrop of Afghan Taliban controlling Afghanistan.

The National Security Committee’s meeting on the deteriorating situation in Swat and other parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa was, therefore, seen as the acknowledgment at the highest level of the looming crisis.

It isn’t that US has all of sudden become sensitive to these issues that have an important bearing on Pakistan’s stability; these have remained on top of foreign policy agenda related to Pakistan during the Obama era.

These apprehensions have now received a new lease of life and it is feared that President Biden’s comments would spark a fresh cycle of suspicions about nuclear security in media as well as Western capitals.

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2022

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