After months of refusing, the United States has apologized for the airstrike that killed 24 Pakistanis last November. The reconciliation may be temporary, however. Islamabad has a clear interest in combating terrorism within its borders, and has made substantial sacrifices in this effort. However, Pakistan’s efforts to confront this issue fall short of U.S. expectations. This perceived lack of commitment has led U.S. forces to conduct unilateral military operations on Pakistani soil – further complicating the relationship and fueling mounting anti-Americanism across Pakistan.
Given the complicated and frustrating relationship the U.S. has with Pakistan, especially since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, there will likely be a strong impulse to move away from Pakistan as that war draws to conclusion. This reaction, however, would be wrong, as Pakistan remains extremely relevant in the U.S. strategic calculus.
As a nuclear weapon state, Pakistan requires continued U.S. engagement. Despite Pakistan’s claims that its nuclear weapons are secure and that it abides by the norms of the nonproliferation regime, the fact remains that Pakistan has a nuclear program outside IAEA safeguards; that it has a domestic Islamist insurgency; and it continues to engage in the buildup of nuclear weapons. Moreover, proliferation networks emanating from Pakistan have significantly contributed to the illicit spread of nuclear technology and knowledge. Since the beginning of U.S.-Pakistani nuclear security dialogue, Islamabad has repeatedly insisted that their security protocols are more than adequate. These protocols reportedly include measures such as de-mated and dummy warheads. The Pakistani military’s Strategic Plans Division, in charge of nuclear security, employs 10,000 soldiers, monitors all nuclear scientists, and has its own intelligence wing. Additionally, analysts believe Pakistan uses a Permissive Action Link-type system to electronically lock its nuclear weapons.
Despite these measures, there is reason to be concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear security. The presence of active terrorist groups and growing radical Islamism within the borders of a nuclear weapon state is a matter of grave concern. The insurgent attack at the Karachi naval base in 2011 and the partial takeover in 2009 of the army headquarters in Rawalpindi highlight the operational capacity and the threat these groups pose.
Since 2000, the U.S. has provided financial and other assistance to aid Pakistan’s nuclear security efforts. Should these efforts prove inadequate, there has also been consideration of U.S. contingency plans to take control of Pakistani nuclear weapons should there be a political breakdown.
However, Islamabad has remained wary of Washington’s objective in nuclear security cooperation and talk of U.S. contingency plans has only exasperated this fear. Subsequently, while the U.S. worries that Pakistani nuclear components could fall into the hands of terrorists, Pakistan has become fixated on the U.S.’s ability to seize control of its arsenal.
Pakistan’s threat perception has led them to take a number of steps that increase concerns about their nuclear security. Pakistan’s fear of a potential U.S. raid has, according to some sources, resulted in the frequent transport of nuclear weapons, both de-mated and mated, in unmarked and unsecured vans to disguise the location of its nuclear warheads.
Additionally, the perceived military threat imposed by India continues to encourage Pakistan’s nuclear buildup. From delivery systems to warheads to fissile materials, Pakistan is building up its nuclear capabilities. In recent months, Pakistan’s military has begun to emphasize the utility of tactical nuclear weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Pakistan is expanding its arsenal of short-range tactical nuclear missiles. This emphasis is visible from recent missile tests, where four out of the five missile tests since April 2012 have involved short-range tactical weapon systems.
Establishing a role for tactical nuclear weapons, and even possibly developing miniaturized nuclear weapons, clearly represents an increased security risk for Pakistan. Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller, mobile weapons and generally forward deployed in less robust security environments. The increased transport between their storage, deployment, and maintenance, dramatically increases the opportunity for these weapons to be lost or stolen.
Pakistan is also expanding its capacity for fissile material production and nuclear weapon stockpile. The new civilian reactors Pakistan plans to build to overcome their energy crisis can assist in meeting their increased demand for fissile materials. However, with added reactors, the increased production of fissile material, and the expansion of the nuclear arsenal, the security risks only continue to grow.
Between concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear security and ongoing tensions with nuclear neighbor, India, it’s no wonder that nuclear expert Joe Cirincione considers Pakistan “the most dangerous country on earth.”
To be fair, Pakistan appears to have greatly reduced the vulnerabilities of its nuclear arsenal. Yet, gates and guards alone cannot fully address the numerous inherent risks of a nuclear program, especially when that program is in an economically, socially, and politically volatile state facing both external and internal security threats.
While some policymakers appear ready to write off Pakistan as a rogue state, we do not have that luxury. In order to address this serious threat to both national and international security, it is imperative that Washington continues to engage Islamabad on nuclear security.