February 23, 2011

Up an Atom: The Real Reasons to Worry about Pakistan’s Growing Nuclear Weapon Stockpile

The following article originally appeared as a GMF Transatlantic Take on February 23, 2011.

WASHINGTON—As protests in the Middle East and North Africa spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Bahrain, another worrisome development in the extended neighborhood has gone relatively unnoticed. Pakistan is now in possession of a nuclear arsenal consisting of 100 to 110 weapons, according to recent reports in two major U.S. newspapers that are based on several independent estimates. This figure represents a doubling of similar estimates conducted four years ago, and means that Pakistan now has a larger nuclear stockpile than Britain.

Although it caused some ripples, this revelation was not exactly a surprise to the nuclear cognoscenti, who have remarked for some time on Pakistan’s expanding nuclear infrastructure. U.S. intelligence analysts expressed their concerns about Pakistan’s buildup as early as 2008, according to documents made available by WikiLeaks. But despite this understanding, expert commentary on Pakistan’s motives remains subject to unfortunate levels of mirror-imaging and outmoded Cold War logic. Specifically, it is still widely believed that Pakistan and its regional competitors will inevitably pursue debilitating arms races, that India and Pakistan are locked in an intractable existential or territorial conflict, that these states are obsessed about the credibility of their nuclear deterrents, and that strategic forces still retain their preeminence as potential delivery mechanisms.

Wrong diagnoses will invariably lead to wrong prescriptions. Many commentators have assumed, for example, that Pakistan’s primary objective is to offset India’s growing latent power and conventional military advantages, even if only as a psychological boost, but the recent acceleration of its weapons production does not correspond to any increase in threat perception. Experts also point to a recent civilian nuclear agreement that Washington brokered with New Delhi as lending India’s nuclear weapons program distinct advantages and furthering a regional nuclear arms race. Yet a race takes two, and India has hardly been rushing to build nuclear weapons. Independent estimates by Western experts of India’s arsenal have actually gone down since India tested its weapons in 1998. Informed, albeit crude, estimates based on its plutonium production capability suggest a current Indian stockpile of around 50 weapons, if not fewer. And given that India’s force posture – based on the size of its stockpile and declared no- first- use policy – is most likely counter- value (i.e. it targets major population centers), a much larger Pakistani arsenal adds little to Pakistan’s sense of security.

If this is not just about India, what could be Pakistan’s motives for rapidly increasing its nuclear stockpile, despite its being in dire economic straits? There are at least two other possibilities that need to be carefully considered. One is that Pakistan, cash-strapped and with a long and well-documented history of nuclear proliferation, is building up the arsenal for the benefit of a partner or client. China and Saudi Arabia have provided diplomatic, financial, and technical support to Pakistan over the years, and it is not unthinkable that Pakistan’s surplus weapons may be placed at their disposal under certain circumstances, particularly Saudi Arabia’s given its lingering concerns about a nuclear Iran.

A second possibility is that Pakistan’s nukes are neither for defense nor for sale, but are instead a potent form of blackmail directed at its primary benefactor: the United States. Washington is petrified of the prospect of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, and has made efforts to assist Pakistan in ensuring the safety and security of its arsenal. But the more weapons there are, the harder it is for the U.S. intelligence community to monitor them, and the greater the fear of their accidental or deliberate loss or misuse. The fact that Pakistan accelerated its weapon production just as its relations with Washington deteriorated may not be entirely coincidental. Like the wiles of a deranged lover, this form of masochistic extortion provides a guarantee for Pakistan against abandonment by Washington.

Whatever its primary motives, Pakistan is unlikely to be dissuaded from its current path of nuclear weapons development. Its willingness to diplomatically isolate itself by single-handedly blocking negotiations toward a fissile material cutoff treaty at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is ample evidence of this. Nevertheless, looking at the problem through the narrow lens of India-Pakistan relations is unhelpful, particularly when it is accompanied by complacency regarding the potential of Pakistani nuclear weapons to compromise Western security interests. Only two weeks ago, a former senior Clinton administration official wrote: “The Pakistani government, which receives billions of dollars each year in American aid, has a generally positive relationship with the U.S., and, should this relationship change, Pakistan’s nuclear delivery vehicles would still lack the range necessary to reach American shores.” This betrays both a poor understanding of U.S.-Pakistan relations as well as an outmoded way of thinking about the threat posed by nuclear weapons today. But it is all the more reason for the recent revelations to serve as a wake up call, one that compels Washington and its partners to think more imaginatively about the forces propelling Pakistan’s self-destructive behavior.