IN recent months, worsening US-Pakistan relations kicked off a cantankerous debate in the media.
But within this larger debate, some hawkish voices have been advocating an insidious nuclear weapons doctrine: use them or lose them.
For them, Washington’s increased use of ‘sticks’ to get what it wants may just be a trial run for a larger American military assault on Pakistan. As one retired ambassador sees it, this impending aggression is linked to American domestic politics.
Apparently, President Barack Obama is looking for a ‘soft target’ to cement his national security credentials in the face of continued Republican criticism in an election year.
Iran is no longer a viable option for attack because it can retaliate with ferocity. In contrast, American military planners see Pakistan as an easy target because both Abbottabad and Salala have clearly demonstrated the Pakistani military’s inability or unwillingness to fight back.
This ‘domestic politics’ explanation of an imagined war is flawed. For one, the American electorate has no appetite for another costly foreign military engagement, especially given poor economic conditions at home.
In the last six months, support for an already unpopular war in Afghanistan has declined sharply amongst both Democrats and Republicans. For instance, a March 2012 New York Times/CBS poll showed that more than two thirds (69 per cent) of Americans from both parties oppose the war, up from 53 per cent in November 2011.
The growing unpopularity of US military operations in Afghanistan is one of the main reasons why the administration is so desperate to cut its losses and get out. War with nuclear-armed Pakistan could turn out to be a political (and even foreign policy) disaster for his administration.
But nuclear-use theorists are not too bothered by these nuances. All they see is a presumably hostile America itching for a fight.
Warning Washington that nationalism will force the Pakistan military to react to another military operation on Pakistani territory, their proposed strategy for preventing a wider war is catastrophically simple: the military should clearly convey to the Americans that if an actual conflict were to break out, and they tried to get Pakistan’s atomic weapons, it will have no choice but to pull the nuclear trigger.
This proposed ‘use it or lose it’ doctrine is dangerously misguided. For one, it needlessly extends Pakistan’s India-specific ‘first-use’ policy to the US, the world’s most powerful nuclear-armed state with an overwhelming second-strike capability. This is tantamount to strategic suicide, especially because Pakistan lacks the delivery mechanisms of the requisite geographical reach.
Second, if the idea is to drop a ‘tactical’ nuclear warhead on US Special Forces inside Pakistani territory, it will impose unimaginably terrible short- and long-term human costs.
Some ‘liberal’ doves might find it baffling that a preventive nuclear strike can be advocated. But then Pakistan is not a normal state. In most normal states, civilians have the inherent right to define threats to national security and the military only has the delegated duty to defend against those threats.
In Pakistan, the military has usurped the right to both define and defend, while brooking little or no dissent. Military dominance over strategic policy has created compelling professional incentives for civilian officials to peddle GHQ’s line.
Take the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a general rule, the more hawkish you are, the more likely you are to land the strategically important diplomatic assignments. It has also socialised many civilians into the military’s pessimistic and paranoid national security perspective as the only proper one.
In this worldview, the Pakistani state is constantly under siege, being maligned, targeted and conspired against by an assortment of enemies, especially for ‘gate-crashing’ into the nuclear club.
Anyone (whether it is a government, a think tank, an independent scholar, or even a former prime minister) who raises legitimate questions about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets must be acting at the behest of the CIA/RAW/Mossad.
In the ‘pan-Islamic’ version of this narrative, Pakistan’s divinely blessed army is portrayed as the only force capable of foiling American hegemonic designs on the Islamic world, one of which is to ensure that no Muslim state acquires the ‘bomb’ with which it can threaten Israel. Hence, the US is desperate to denuclearise the only atomic Muslim state.
Never mind that the Pakistan Army has virtually always been available to the Americans ‘for rent’. Never mind that some of our ‘rogue scientists’ have proliferated nuclear weapons technology to unsavoury and unstable states, or that others have allegedly tried to collude with Al Qaeda.
Never mind that a few determined militants can successfully lay siege to GHQ and other strategic military installations. And above all, never mind that ‘godless’ North Korea is one of the principal targets of the US non-proliferation policy. These are what Max Weber called “inconvenient facts” which must be swept under the carpet in the ‘national interest’.
Here is an inconvenient fact. As long as Pakistan’s military violates the global democratic norm of civilian supremacy by controlling the country’s foreign and security policies, the rest of the world is unlikely to treat us as a ‘normal’ country. But why should we care about what the rest of the world thinks of us?
In another former diplomat’s opinion, we are not trying to win a popularity contest. Our primary goal must be to act in our best “national security interests”. And sometimes this might require casually threatening nuclear strikes on our ‘enemies’.
That’s right, only when you hold a gun to the head and threaten to pull the trigger, will the Americans understand that you mean business. And then we blame others for allegedly wanting to take away the gun.
The writer is a research fellow, Society of Fellows, Harvard University.