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Herald exclusive: Pakistan’s nuclear bayonet

Published Feb 16, 2011 05:20am


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An extremist takeover of Pakistan is probably no further than five to 10 years away. Even today, some radical Islamists are advocating war against America.

In an enthusiastic moment, Napoleon is said to have remarked: “Bayonets are wonderful! One can do anything with them except sit on them!” Pakistan’s political and military establishment glows with similar enthusiasm about its nuclear weapons. Following the 1998 nuclear tests, it saw “The Bomb” as a panacea for solving Pakistan’s multiple problems. It became axiomatic that, in addition to providing total security, “The Bomb” would give Pakistan international visibility, help liberate Kashmir, create national pride and elevate the country’s technological status. But the hopes and goals were quite different from those of earlier days.

Back then, there was just one reason for wanting “The Bomb” — Indian nukes had to be countered by Pakistani nukes. Indeed, in 1965, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had uttered his famous statement about “The Bomb”: if India got it “then we shall have to eat grass and get one, or buy one, of our own.” In the famous Multan meeting that followed India’s victory in the 1971 war, Bhutto demanded from Pakistani scientists that they map out a nuclear weapons programme to counter India’s. Pakistan was pushed further into the nuclear arena by the Indian test of May 1974.

Although challenged again to equalise forces by a series of five Indian nuclear tests in May 1998, Pakistan was initially reluctant to test its own weapons for fear of international sanctions. Much soul-searching followed. But foolish taunts and threats by Indian leaders such as L K Advani and George Fernandes forced Pakistan over the edge that same month, a fact that India now surely regrets.

Pakistan’s nuclear success changed attitudes instantly. A super-confident military suddenly saw nuclear weapons as a talisman; having nukes-for-nukes became secondary. “The Bomb” became the means for neutralising India’s far larger conventional land, air and sea forces. This thinking soon translated into action. Just months after the 1998 nuclear tests, Pakistani troops and militants, protected by a nuclear shield, crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir into Kargil. Militant Islamic groups freely organised across Pakistan. When the Mumbai attacks eventually followed in 2008, India could do little more than froth and fume.

A third purpose, which is still emerging, is subtler but critically important: our nukes generate income. Hard economic times have befallen Pakistan: loadshedding and fuel shortages routinely shut down industries and transport for long stretches, imports far exceed exports, inflation is at the double-digit level, foreign direct investment is negligible because of concerns over physical security, tax reform has failed, and corruption remains unchecked. An African country like Somalia or Congo would have long ago sunk under this weight. But, like nuclear North Korea, Pakistan feels protected. It knows that international financial donors are compelled to keep pumping in funds. Else a collapsing Pakistan would be unable to prevent its 80+ Hiroshima-sized nukes from disappearing into the darkness.

Over time, then, the country’s nuclear bayonet has gained more than just deterrence value; it is a dream instrument for any ruling oligarchy. Unlike Napoleon’s bayonet – painful to sit upon – nukes offer no such discomfort. Unsurprisingly, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf often referred to them as Pakistan’s “crown jewels”. One recalls that immediately after 9/11 he declared these “assets” were to be protected at all costs — even if this meant accepting American demands to dump the Taliban.

But can our nukes lose their magic? Be stolen, rendered impotent or lose the charm through which they bring in precious revenue? More fundamentally, how and when could they fail to deter?

A turning point could possibly come with Mumbai-II. This is no idle speculation. The military establishment’s reluctance to clamp down on anti-India jihadi groups, or to punish those who carried out Mumbai-I, makes a second Pakistan-based attack simply a matter of time. Although not officially assisted or sanctioned, it would create fury in India. What then? How would India respond?

There cannot, of course, be a definite answer. But it is instructive to analyse Operation Parakram, India’s response to the attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001. This 10-month-long mobilisation of nearly half a million soldiers and deployment of troops along the LOC was launched to punish Pakistan for harbouring the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which, at least initially, had claimed responsibility for the attack. When Parakram fizzled out, Pakistan claimed victory and India was left licking its wounds.

A seminar held in August 2003 in Delhi brought together senior Indian military leaders and top analysts to reflect on Parakram. To quote the main speaker, Major-General Ashok Mehta, the two countries hovered on the brink of war and India’s “coercive diplomacy failed due to the mismatch of India-US diplomacy and India’s failure to think through the end game”. The general gave several reasons for not going to war against Pakistan. These included a negative cost-benefit analysis, lack of enthusiasm in the Indian political establishment, complications arising from the Gujarat riots of 2002 and “a lack of courage”. That Parakram would have America’s unflinching support also turned out to be a false assumption.

A second important opinion, articulated by the influential former Indian intelligence chief, Lieutenant-General Vikram Sood, was still harsher on India. He expressed regret at not going to war against Pakistan and said that India had “failed to achieve strategic space as well as strategic autonomy”. He went on to say that Musharraf never took India seriously after it lost this golden opportunity to attack a distracted Pakistan that was waging war against the Taliban on the Durand Line. Using the word “imbroglio” for India’s punitive attempt, he pointed out that no political directive had been provided to the service chiefs for execution even as late as August 2002. On the contrary, the Chief of Army Staff was asked to draw up a directive that month to extricate the army.

Now that the finger-pointing, recriminations and stock-taking are over, one can be sure that India will not permit a second Parakram. Indeed, a new paradigm for dealing with Pakistan has emerged and is encoded into strategies such as Cold Start. These call for quick, salami-slicing thrusts into Pakistan while learning to fight a conventional war under a “nuclear overhang” (by itself an interesting new phrase, used by General Deepak Kapoor in January 2010).

On this score, recent revelations by WikiLeaks are worthy of consideration. In a classified cable to Washington in February 2010, Tim Roemer, the US ambassador to India, described Cold Start as “not a plan for a comprehensive invasion and occupation of Pakistan” but “for a rapid, time- and distance-limited penetration into Pakistani territory”. He wrote that “it is the collective judgment of the US Mission that India would encounter mixed results.” Warning India against Cold Start, he concluded that “Indian leaders no doubt realise that although Cold Start is designed to punish Pakistan in a limited manner without triggering a nuclear response, they cannot be sure whether Pakistani leaders will in fact refrain from such a response.”

Roemer is spot on. Implementing Cold Start, which might be triggered by Mumbai-II, may well initiate a nuclear disaster. Indeed, there is no way to predict how such conflicts will end once they start. Therefore a rational Indian leadership – which one can only hope would exist at that particular time – is unlikely to opt for it. But even in this optimistic scenario, Mumbai-II would likely be a bigger disaster for Pakistan than for India. Yes, Pakistani nukes would be unhurt and unused, but their magic would have evaporated.

The reason is clear: an aggrieved India would campaign – with a high chance of success – for ending all international aid for Pakistan, a trade boycott and stiff sanctions. The world’s fear of loose Pakistani nukes hijacked by Islamist forces would be overcome by the international revulsion of yet another stomach-churning massacre. With little fat to spare in the economy, collapse may happen over weeks rather than months. Bravado in Pakistan would be intense at first but would fast evaporate.

Foodstuffs, electricity, gas and petrol would disappear. China and Saudi Arabia would send messages of sympathy and some aid, but they would not make up the difference. With scarcity all around, angry mobs would burn grid stations and petrol pumps, loot shops, and plunder the houses of the rich. Today’s barely governable Pakistan would become ungovernable. The government then in power, whether civilian or military, would exist only in name. Religious and regional forces would pounce upon their chances; Pakistan would descend into hellish anarchy.

In another scenario, could Pakistan’s nukes be stolen by Islamist radicals? America’s worries about this are dismissed by most Pakistanis who consider these fears to be unfounded and suspect such US claims to be hiding bad intent. They point out that the professionalism of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which has custodial responsibility of the weapons, has been praised by many visitors. Reassuring words have also come from visiting American politicians like Senator Joe Lieberman. With US tutoring and funds, SPD says it has implemented various technical precautions such as improved perimeter security, installation of electronic locks and security devices such as Permissive Action Links, and a personnel reliability programme.

For all this, procedures and technical fixes are only as good as the men who operate them. For example, more or better weapons could not have prevented Governor Salmaan Taseer from being gunned down by his own guards. This incident, as well as numerous insider attacks upon the military and Inter-Services Intelligence, raise the spectre of a mutiny in nuclear quarters. Given Pakistan’s radicalised and trenchantly anti-American environment, it is hard to argue that this would be impossible in a state of crisis.

Since the nukes may not be safe from radicals, it is logical to assume that the US must have extensively war-gamed the situation. Contingency plans would be put into operation once there is actionable intelligence of Pakistan’s nukes getting loose, or if a radical regime takes over and makes overt threats. What could these plans be, and would they really work?

An article published in The New Yorker in November 2009 by Seymour Hersh created waves in Pakistan. He wrote that US emergency plans exist for taking the sting out of Pakistan’s nukes by seizing their trigger mechanisms. He also claimed that an alarm, apparently related to a missing nuclear bomb component, had caused a US rapid response team to fly to Dubai. The alarm proved false and the team was recalled before it reached Pakistan. The Pakistan foreign ministry, as well as the US embassy in Islamabad, vigorously denied any such episode.

What should one make of Hersh’s claim? First, it is highly unlikely that the US has accurate knowledge of the storage locations of Pakistan’s nukes, especially since they (or look-alike dummies) are mobile. Extensive underground tunnels reportedly exist within which they can be freely moved. Second, even if a location is exactly known, it would be heavily guarded. This implies many casualties on both sides when intruding troops are engaged, thus making a secret operation impossible. Third, attacking a Pakistani nuclear site would be an act of war with totally unacceptable consequences for the US, particularly in view of its Afghan difficulties. All of this suggests that Hersh’s source of information was defective.

How would the US actually react to theft? Ill-informed TV anchors have screamed hysterically about Blackwater and US forces descending to grab the country’s nukes. But in a hypothetical crisis where the US has decided to take on Pakistan, its preferred military option would not be ground forces. Instead it would opt for precision Massive Ordnance Penetrator 30,000-pound bombs dropped by B-2 bombers or fry the circuit boards of the warheads using short, high-energy bursts of microwave energy from low-flying aircraft. But deeply buried warheads, or those with adequate metallic shielding, would still remain safe.

A US attack on Pakistan’s nuclear production or storage sites would, however, be monumental stupidity. Even if a single nuke escapes destruction, that last one could cause catastrophic damage. But the situation is immensely more uncertain and dangerous than a single surviving nuke. Even if the US knows the precise numbers of deployed weapons, it simply cannot know all their position coordinates. India, one imagines, would know even less.

Hence the bottom line: there is no way for any external power, whether America or India, to effectively deal with Pakistan’s nukes. Is this good news? Yes and no. While nuclear survivability increases Pakistani confidence and prevents dangerous knee-jerk reactions, it has also encouraged adventurism — the consequences of which Pakistan had to pay after Kargil.

An extremist takeover of Pakistan is probably no further than five to 10 years away. Even today, some radical Islamists are advocating war against America. But such a war would end Pakistan as a nation state even if no nukes are ever used. Saving Pakistan from religious extremism will require the army, which alone has power over critical decisions, to stop using its old bag of tricks. It must stop pretending that the threat lies across our borders when in fact the threat lies within. Napoleon’s bayonet ultimately could not save him, and Pakistan’s nuclear bayonet has also had its day. It cannot protect the country. Instead, Pakistan needs peace, economic justice, rule of law, tax reform, a social contract, education and a new federation agreement.

The author is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad


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Comments (35) Closed

Mikal Feb 16, 2011 11:05am
A interesting article, a little pessimistic but interesting nonetheless.
Ramesh Manghirmalani Feb 16, 2011 11:25am
Pakistan sought to acquire strategic symmetry with India by going in for a nuclear weapons arsenal. It thought that its conventional warfare asymmetries with India would be swept away by Pakistanis nuclear deterrence flowing from its nuclear weapons arsenal. However, the above is debatable, because India by virtue of its overwhelming economic and technological resources superiority can impose on Pakistan, both a nuclear arms race and a conventional arms race. Even the latter, singly, would bring Pakistan to economic ruin. The above factor should prompt Pakistan to adopt a more adaptive approach to South Asia's strategic realities. It should also impel Pakistan to remove the uncertain implications generated by its nuclear brinkmanship displayed for over a decade now. That India did not call Pakistans nuclear bluffs was not because of any cowardice or fear of a Pakistani imposed nuclear conflict but because of restraint as a responsible and politically mature nation-state. But the Indian restraint cannot be read by Pakistan as an unending and open-ended policy of the Indian nation state. Pakistan's nuclear waywardness, its record of WMD proliferation, scant respect for honoring India-Pakistan Agreements of the past and other peace initiatives, do not generate much faith and trust in its approaches to nuclear CBMs in South Asia. This is especially so, when Pakistan considers its nuclear weapons as the Great Equaliser with India and also a tool for nuclear brinkmanship to internationalise its disputes with India.
Amit Feb 16, 2011 11:34am
The writer is one of the few brilliant humanists left in Pakistan.
Mishra Feb 16, 2011 11:44am
As an Indian i can tell you,we would not be either happy to see US sitting our next door.They are virtually in control of your resources at the moment.It seems bigger game than anyone else expected-its occupation of world at large. Mishra
NORI Feb 16, 2011 11:50am
Good Article. Pak's Nukes should be the source of confidence, not over confidence.
Vidyut Feb 16, 2011 12:01pm
Bravo! Well said!! Exactly like it is. Pakistan's greatest threat indeed lies inside, and whether the deterrent works or not, the ones suffering from this external power play oriented policy are the ones inside the country. The looming danger cannot be discounted, and no one except Pakistan has the power to sink or save the country. These scenarios have been playing in the mind of everyone following Pakistan in the news, yet never put on the table straight out like this. Much needed.
GJC Feb 16, 2011 12:26pm
Dr. Hoodbhoy's article is at once paranoid and assuring, rational and irrational. Nuclear weapons are the epitome of human evil and mischief. We must rid the planet off them. And the whole World must do it. But if we cannot go to zero option for the whole World, then perhaps we could go to zero option for India and Pakistan. But can we really do that? Given that India aspires to a much larger economic, political, and military role in the region, and even the World, it is unlikely for her to dispossess nuclear weapons. And given that Pakistan's sense of security is inextricably linked with India possession, or not, of nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that Pakistan can give up its weapons. And we certainly cannot expect that Pakistan should unilaterally disarm, nor should it. It seems to me, therefore, that nuclear weapons in the Indian subcontinent are here to stay. Circumstances have served Pakistan well to vindicate its policy of deterrence. As Dr. Hoodbhoy mentions, Pakaram Operation Parakram failed. If indeed that was because of Pakistan's nukes, and I think it was, then deterrence worked. Kargill was a crazy adventure; it should have never been. But clearly India was about to respond with a crazier adventure. Kargill didn't kill a lot of people, but Operation Parakram would have. Perhaps the nukes worked without having been used, perhaps not. There are saner ways to deal with nuclear genie in the Indian subcontinent: verifiable agreements, hermetically sealed security measures, and certainly solving the irksome disputes that have pegged the two nations against each other for much too long, Kashmir, for one. The solution under no circumstances should be unilateral disarming of Pakistan. Can imagine living in a neighborhood where your most powerful neighbor is armed to the teeth with conventional as well as nuclear weapons, and has disputes with you?
GK Feb 16, 2011 12:31pm
Thanks for carrying Prof. Hoodbhoy's article. We, in India, admire the man. He's a voice of reason in the subcontinent.
Sunny Feb 16, 2011 12:34pm
Well written. Something nice to read at dawn. keep up the good work
vijay Feb 16, 2011 12:58pm
I am shocked after reading your article. Your brazen support to the attacks on India is shameful. No wonder Pakistan is in dire straits. What's your obsession with nukes? India is scared of your nukes? Do you understand the repercussions?
Farooq Feb 16, 2011 01:33pm
I have severe doubts about India's maturity. If you leave Pakistan out of the equation. India has problems with Bangladesh, Nepal.Even China. It only speaks the language of force with its neighbors. Instead of stabilizing the region it seeks to put it down. It will be a long time before India sees regional stability in its own interests.
Shuvajit Chakraborty Feb 16, 2011 01:52pm
Have anyone thought of the disaster they are making for Pakistani people by building these nukes. Say after 50 years down the time these nukes will be at the end of their life time as is for all the material things. The dangers posed by these then decaying nukes have escaped the power elites of the country. Again there is little chance that even one of it will be used. Then what is the logic of wasting money for building something which can not or will not be used when the money could have gone to impoverished millions in that blighted country.
Sunny Feb 16, 2011 02:14pm
India doesnt have problem with all his neighbors. India does have a problem with autocratic regime. All the parties who have problem with India doesn't have democracy and therefore are not comfortable with India. Democratic parties within Bangladesh and India have good relations with India. The one that are against, do not believe in democracy.
We have nothing to f Feb 16, 2011 03:50pm
this article is indeed a better deterrent than the nukes themselves. also the last paragraph carries the real message. message to the army: start behaving.
Navin Bhardwaj Feb 16, 2011 03:52pm
I agree. It was extremely unwise of Indian leaders to have pushed Pakistan into nuclear weapons race. The two countries should now get together and destroy the nukes they have before this technology becomes the cause of their destruction
Ahmed Feb 16, 2011 04:00pm
Well said.
Ashwin Sharma Feb 16, 2011 04:03pm
Excellent piece albiet a bit too pessimistic
Bilal Feb 16, 2011 04:35pm
I wish if I could agree with the following "That India did not call Pakistans nuclear bluffs was not because of fear of a Pakistani imposed nuclear conflict but because of restraint as a responsible and politically mature nation-state." Remember it was India who first got Nuclear Weapons and then It was again India who did five tests in 1998 and then like a school boy was provoking Pakistan by shouting from across the border, That wasn't maturity was it ? The day they solve the Kashmir issue according to its native people, the whole world would agree that India has got mature now
Syed Hussein El-Edro Feb 16, 2011 04:46pm
Agree with Dr Hoodbhoy "Saving Pakistan from religious extremism will require the army, which alone has power over critical decisions, to stop using its old bag of tricks. It must stop pretending that the threat lies across our borders when in fact the threat lies within. Napoleon’s bayonet ultimately could not save him, and Pakistan’s nuclear bayonet has also had its day. It cannot protect the country. Instead, Pakistan needs peace, economic justice, rule of law, tax reform, a social contract, education and a new federation agreement."
Asif Feb 16, 2011 05:08pm
Sensible thinking!!! If anyone has any doubt about what Mishra is saying just have look into history.
Faraz Feb 16, 2011 05:22pm
Why is it assumed that our so called nuclear bayonet has to be at odds with peace, economic justice, rule of law, tax reform, a social contract, education and a new federation agreement? Those are entirely separate issues and are not even remotely linked with each other. Then why associate them in such a lump sum manner.
Arun Feb 16, 2011 05:50pm
The problem India had prior to 1998 was that of facing an undeclared nuclear power. If Pakistan had not responded to Indian tests in 1998, India would have been internationally isolated. India would have faced the same problem in the Kargil War, even if Pakistan was an undeclared nuclear power. Coming months after Vajpayee's visit to Pakistan, and after the Chief of Staff's refusal to shake hands with him, Kargil is seen more as a result of the military's dominant position in Pakistan, and its defence of its reason for existing.
Fersos Feb 16, 2011 06:26pm
Excellent article ! The problem with Nukes is that you cannot feed your citizens with them. They are expensive show pieces which are costly to protect and maintain. All the Worlds Nukes should be sent to the burial grounds for disposal.
Another Misra Feb 16, 2011 07:56pm
Very well written article. In my opinion, India will continue to pump up its economic growth and infrastructurw. Solidfy weak institutions, Hit hard on corruption and wait for pakistan to self destruct. It is a shame, a Govenor is assasinated and the political leadership is too scared to even attend a funeral.
KLS Feb 17, 2011 05:21am
Excellent article. The main problem here is religion Each country has to shed it "holier than thou attitude for things to improve.
mian raza Feb 17, 2011 06:02am
what ever he said in his article does make sence but my problem is that i know hood bhai very well by his thoughts and appearance in media he is clearly not a freind of islamic pakistan he some how felt to me as an insider for some one else, living in pakistan so my answer to his article is middle finger....
Farhan Feb 17, 2011 07:49am
The professor is way off target in his assertion that an Islamic takeover is 5-10 years away. How many seats did Islamic parties win in elections held 3 years ago?
Riaz Feb 17, 2011 09:06am
Nice article. The basic problem is that India has not learned as yet to behave like a democracy.If India were to respect the democratic aspirations of the people of Kashmir an eternal peace will descend on the subcontinent - these two countries will be like US and Canada. Untill such time Nukes will keep the peace. Pakistan is not going anywhwere anytime soon - dream on.
Rajnish Feb 17, 2011 09:07am
Good article.Though I dont entirely agree with observations around Pak army being the final saviour for the nation. Bring better democracy with lesser role for army. Reduce hatred first, stop anti-India chants of Jihadis and allow free trade. Things will get better and then we will find solutions. Feeling emotionally charged on Kashmir, while ignoring Baluchs,Tibetans, Chinese muslim's plight is all symptomatic of a nation driven more by hatred towards India than anything else. China is a great friend just because its India's enemy. Look at other close friend of China - North Korea, not a great place to be in. More than 60 yrs after partition, its time we put past behind us and started living peacefully with eachother.
umar Feb 17, 2011 10:08am
religous radicalism will tear the house down, indian or others need merely watch. we are already guarding the bomb that was supposed to guard us.the road map given in the last line of the article is the course we must take.
Karan kalani Feb 17, 2011 10:47am
A halt to the international aid to pakistan would result in even more anarchy in that country which will consequently increase the chances of a radical group taking over the nukes. So why will countries deny aid to pakistan ? Or for that matter, how would india react in case of another terrosist attack. India is not sure if the countries will stop aid to pakistan. Nor can it implement direct limited military attacks on pakistan to avoid a nuclear holocaust
M.khan Feb 17, 2011 11:43am
Dear Editor, this is an excellent article and Dr Hoodby is a great asset of Pakistan.
john Feb 17, 2011 12:13pm
Isn't it time for both countries to understand that there is too much at stake and both countries will not get an inch of each others land and Kashmir is a done deal?
AJ Feb 17, 2011 12:18pm
It is. Down the drain.
Aseem Feb 17, 2011 01:37pm
Indeed above is very mature & meaningful article. One from only few surviving liberal left in Pakistan.