ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The Pakistani military and the nation’s recently dissolved government have been touting a “strategic pivot” toward increased cooperation and transparency with regional neighbors, but it is far from clear whether these major shifts would affect Islamabad’s nuclear weapons.
The outcome of national elections in May could be decisive on the matter. All major parties agree that the time has come for Pakistan to work with Afghanistan on resolving security issues prior to the pullout of U.S. troops at the end of 2014.
What is less clear is to what extent Islamabad will also reach out to strengthen ties with its rival to the east, India, and whether regional engagement might include any sort of nuclear rapprochement.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, whose political organization has led the nation for the past five years, describes the shift as motivated by a recognition that the main threat now facing their nation is violent extremism. Pakistani army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani publicly discussed the new strategic thinking last year, and the idea has since been increasingly touted by PPP leaders here and abroad.
Other major Pakistani political parties, too, are embracing the idea of a strategic shift. However, only one of them -- former President Nawaz Sharif’s branch of the Pakistan Muslim League -- appears to be eyeing fresh diplomatic outreach to India on the nuclear issue.
No matter who wins power in upcoming elections, Pakistanis are expected to continue rallying around atomic arms as the crown jewel of their national security forces.
“There is a great confidence that nuclear deterrence helps the country assure its security” against conventional war with India, said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and now a top political commentator.
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Her view was echoed by a number of Pakistani military and government officials interviewed over the past several weeks.
Pakistan two decades ago began discussing with India possible terms for a “strategic restraint regime” featuring proposals to cap nuclear weapons quantities, limit deployments and curb missile defenses, Lodhi said.
However, there appears to be little appetite for engagement on nuclear arms in New Delhi today, even as talk grows about regional security and free trade, Lodhi said. India has insisted that its strategic nuclear focus is on China, not Pakistan.
That has not stopped Sharif -- whose second term as prime minister was cut short in October 1999 when he was overthrown by former army Gen. Pervez Musharraf – from musing about the possibilities. In interviews this week, Sharif’s top party leaders signaled that, if successful at the ballot box this May, he could revive nuclear stability talks with India.
Sharif has “stated in all his meetings” with visiting Indian leaders that “he would like to pick up the threads from exactly where he got interrupted at the military coup in 1999,” said Tariq Fatemi, a senior Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader who once served as envoy to Washington.
The former prime minister has significant popular support in the crucial Punjab region and his party is heavily favored to win in the upcoming elections.
Despite continued differences on a number of security, economic and political fronts, Sharif “represents those forces that want close coordination and cooperative ties with India,” Fatemi told visiting U.S. journalists. Still, it is uncertain how much support he might garner for any nuclear engagement initiative from the Pakistani military, which plays a dominant role in the nation’s foreign policy.
“We are looking at opening our doors to the Indians, which as you know hasn’t had the kind of momentum that we would want it to have,” said one Pakistani defense official. Asking not to be identified to allow for more candor, the official discussed initial steps toward broad reconciliation and did not address nuclear force issues in particular.
“We have history unfortunately that has a lot of baggage, and it’s taking us a little effort to go get beyond that,” the defense figure said.
Despite recent Pakistani statements indicating an intention to improve engagement with Afghanistan and India, the nation’s nuclear arms bureaucracy -- the Strategic Plans Division – also has been telling U.S. officials that the atomic branch essentially should be exempt from increased openness.
Dialogue with Western governments and, on rare occasion, the media “hasn’t given value to them because people keep beating up on them, the more transparent they are,” said one U.S. government official interviewed late last month. This source requested anonymity to address a diplomatically sensitive topic.
Meantime, PPP leaders say they have launched the new strategic pivot in the region based on a heightened awareness that radical militancy poses the greatest threat to their country’s stability. The Pakistani Taliban and a handful of other violent extremist groups have stepped up violence in recent years against the nation’s military bases, government offices, hotels and population.
Although the same term -- “strategic” -- is routinely applied to Pakistan’s estimated 100 nuclear warheads, this sensitive arsenal might easily slip by untouched if the ruling party wins a second consecutive term in power, according to officials and issue experts interviewed here and in Washington.
“We’ve seen individual attacks, we’ve seen suicide bombings, we’ve seen individual vehicle-borne [improvised explosive devices], we’ve seen these mass attacks, we’ve seen attempted infiltrations to damage the security forces,” said the Pakistani defense official.
“And then we’ve seen also mass bombings, which are just meant to demoralize the civilian population,” the official said.
The carnage, carried out largely by those who seek to promulgate a radically conservative form of Islam throughout the region, is also intended to “contribute to undermining the public’s confidence in the government, in the military and the law enforcement, to project them as weak [and] as unable to control these threats,” the defense official said. “Therefore the people may start to question the viability and the effectiveness of these organizations, institutions and people.”
Even as Pakistan shifts resources to meet the evolving militant threat, the nation’s nuclear arsenal has been described as the world’s fastest growing stockpile. India is believed to have an atomic force similarly numbering roughly 100 warheads.
While civilian and military leaders in Islamabad are reluctant to discuss details, outside observers said in interviews they have seen no indications that, thus far, the nuclear arsenal plans have changed.
In 2004, then-President Musharraf said in a speech that he had put in place a 15-year blueprint to modernize and expand the nation’s atomic stockpile, according to Zia Mian, a physicist with Princeton University’s Program on Peace and Security.
“I’ve always assumed that that’s the trajectory that they’re working on,” he said in an interview. “And it’s not connected to ups and downs of short-term things. They decided that this was the goal that they had, more or less, for the kinds of systems and the kinds of capabilities and the amounts of materials that they wanted.”
At a recent public event in Washington, the South Asian nation’s envoy to the United States said a gradual process of policy change already in the works “will buttress the new Pakistan into a future based on regional stability, security and we hope peace and prosperity.”
“We have been working with Afghanistan and the United States on the path to reconciliation,” Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman said at a Feb. 26 talk at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “We are seeking to build constituencies of peace with India.”
Asked what effect she anticipates the strategic pivot might have on the role that nuclear weapons play in Pakistan’s national security, Rehman essentially changed the subject.
“The strategic pivot is a strategic pivot,” she said. “It builds equities for peace … and we are really working towards a future where we see Pakistan as an important hub for trade, energy and business opportunity.”
Mian noted that Indian-Pakistani efforts to implement a most-favored-nation trade agreement so far have remained mired in hesitancy and distrust, so any new movement on that issue could signal real and potentially broader changes in the relationship.
“One would need to look for concrete signs of this new position, if there is one, actually showing up before one said that there was actually a new position,” he said in a telephone interview late last month.
Might Pakistan’s military view its nuclear arsenal as the ultimate backstop during a period of strategic risk, as the country jettisons its longtime reliance on advancing its interests via armed proxies in neighboring nations?
“The shift could be supported by nuclear [arms],” Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center and director of its South Asia program, said in a Feb. 25 phone interview. “If they are going to shift [conventional forces] toward counterinsurgency and away from [border defense against] India, then how do you keep India at bay? Well, then you rely more on nuclear weapons, including short-range systems.
“Don’t think that this shift is necessarily good news on the nuclear front,” he added. “It may not be. We don’t know. We don’t even know if there’s a shift.”
Mian cast doubt, however, on the idea that nuclear arms could serve as insurance against risks posed by adopting a new and unfamiliar national strategy. The military is driving the shift, so presumably its brass believes it will enhance security rather than heighten vulnerability, he said.
“The army’s running the show on national security policy,” he said. “The fact that that [strategic shift] is starting to happen is because they’ve decided it’s OK to let that happen.”
In any case, Mian said, any sense of heightened risk could be offset by improved relations with India.
Speaking early last year at a conference, retired Pakistani army Lt. Gen. Talat Masood sounded a similar theme.
According to a report in The Nation newspaper, Masood argued that Pakistan should seek military stability with India, rather than attempting to match its eastern neighbor’s conventional military superiority. In this way, Islamabad could reduce its reliance on nuclear arms for security, he reportedly said.
Alternatively, it is possible that Pakistani military perceptions of threats the nation faces will simply change, rather than diminish, the U.S. official said.
“Maybe the pivot is just that they’ve added an ‘and’ to their view of what poses threats to them,” said the official, referring to what might be an unchanged view of India even amid mounting Pakistani recognition that it must counter its domestic militant threat.
Lodhi, who spoke with U.S. reporters here on a bilateral journalism exchange, cited a couple of reasons why the strategic pivot would not apply to nuclear arms matters anytime in the foreseeable future.
In response to India’s “Cold Start” doctrine, which envisions a quick strike against Pakistani targets across the border, Islamabad has decided to step up its own fissile material production, she noted.
Speaking later with the journalists, a prominent physicist explained that Pakistan wants enough warheads so that nuclear arms can be dispersed widely throughout the nation in a defensive -- and highly risky -- move against an Indian no-notice attack.
“That was obviously the only answer that Pakistan could give was to say that, ‘OK, if you come in we will nuke you -- and nuke you on our soil,’” said Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a retired faculty member at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
In addition, following the Nuclear Suppliers Group move in 2008 to give India access to sensitive atomic material for civil purposes -- which also permits New Delhi’s military nuclear activities to continue unfettered -- Pakistan has asserted a right to build up its own fissile stocks to maintain a deterrence balance, Lodhi said.
Though non-members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime such as India and Pakistan typically are not eligible for civil atomic trade under NSG rules, New Delhi obtained a waiver with U.S. support.
“I think Pakistan would like to have strategic stability with Afghanistan … but at the same time would like to double up its fissile material production,” Masood, the retired general, told reporters here last week.
Islamabad has effectively blocked global agreement on a treaty to ban production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. The nation is taking advantage of the current lack of limits so that it can stockpile bomb-grade material for future warheads, he said.
With India now eyeing ballistic missile defenses, “it’s an arms race waiting to happen. But we don’t want to go down that path,” Lodhi said. “We will obviously stop at a point where we feel we have enough to be able to deter India. But we need to do [engagement on nuclear issues] now. I would not want to wait until the relationship gets better.”