Why is Pakistan—a country teetering on the brink of breakdown and heavily dependent on the international community for life support—not only increasing its stockpile of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but also expanding its capacity to produce more? The reflexive answer usually is: because of India. Now, there is little doubt that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is India-centric, but this by itself does not completely explain Pakistan’s behaviour. Understanding Pakistan’s nuclear expansion will be incomplete without accounting its participation in the West Asian arms race and its insecurities arising from Washington’s involvement in its nuclear affairs.
First, the Pakistani military establishment knows from its experiences of the 1999 Kargil war, the 2002 military stand-off and the events following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai last November that its existing nuclear deterrent works. The gravest Pakistani provocation is routinely reciprocated by Indian restraint. Indeed, were it not for Pakistan’s unwillingness to abandon the use of terrorism as an instrument of its policy towards India, it is evident that nuclear weapons would nearly eliminate all risk of war between the two countries.
Second, it is implicit in India’s nuclear doctrine—no first use, with a minimum credible deterrent—that it does not matter greatly to New Delhi whether Pakistan has 60 warheads or 120. Even if Pakistan’s nuclear guardians distrust mere words, they cannot be entirely oblivious to the fact that, despite having the means to do so, India has not invested in a single new nuclear reprocessing plant—which would increase India’s capacity to build warheads—over the last decade.
Also, while the India-US nuclear deal enables New Delhi to expand its civilian nuclear power generation capacity, without new reprocessing plants, it constrains the number of warheads India can produce. Under the terms of the deal, India agreed to the separation of its civilian and military facilities. It also agreed to prematurely close down the weapons-related CIRUS research reactor near Mumbai by 2010; as of date, India has not even announced plans for a replacement.
Third, up until 26/11, India and Pakistan were engaged in a peace process: not quite the conditions for Pakistan to seek a quantum leap in its nuclear arsenal.
At the margin, therefore, more warheads do not provide more security for Pakistan vis-à-vis India. So, an analysis of Pakistan’s motives must consider alternative explanations.
Bruce Riedel, who chaired US President Barack Obama’s policy review for Afghanistan-Pakistan, points out in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal that there have been “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal, “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb”.
British journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, citing former senior US and Pakistani officials, write that the Saudis wanted the “finished product, to stash away in an emergency, and Pakistan agreed to supply it in return for many hundreds of millions of dollars”. Pakistan also brokered the transfer of the nuclear-capable CSS-2 missiles from China to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s.
As Iran gets closer to building a nuclear arsenal, Saudi Arabia—the Iranian Shia theocracy’s geopolitical and ideological rival—is likely to seek a nuclear balance across the Persian Gulf. Using Pakistan to hold its arsenal in trust allows Saudi Arabia to stay clear of violating its non-proliferation commitments. Now, even if Pakistan’s own insecurities with respect to its eastern neighbour are kept out of the calculation, Iran’s nuclearization suggests that Pakistan will have to build additional capacity for its Saudi Arabian partner. In other words, Pakistan is in a nuclear arms race all right—but it’s probably a West Asian one.
There is another angle: After 9/11, the US took steps to “secure” Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to prevent its unauthorized use. The military establishment fears that its arsenal is compromised by US supervision and potential plans to snatch it. Pakistani leaders believe that nuclear weapons are their ultimate insurance policy. Therefore, the army is likely to protect its nuclear autonomy by building a second, more secret arsenal. The US Congressional Research Service reports that Pakistan has indeed developed such an arsenal although it is described as a “second strike capability” against India. Because of their inability to fully secure Pakistan’s arsenal, US efforts might have paradoxically increased proliferation risks.
Persuading Pakistan to halt the expansion of its nuclear weapons programme requires both the US and China to change their ways. Money is fungible—it is untenable to argue that US taxpayers are not financing Pakistan’s bomb: US cash going to Islamabad, even if not targeted for military use, only frees up Pakistan’s other resources for nuclear weapons. Washington must then tie its aid to Pakistan freezing further capacity addition. Unless the US shows that it is serious about the matter, how can it expect to get China to stop selling nuclear technology to Pakistan?
Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org