A muddled nuclear story

A muddled nuclear story
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First Published: Thu, Nov 12 2009. 10 45 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Thu, Nov 12 2009. 10 45 PM IST
Here’s a piece of good news for Pakistan: no one is about to snatch its precious nuclear weapons. There are serious doubts if anyone outside the country, the Americans or Indians, can lay its hands on them. It is an entirely different matter that the Taliban may be able to do so. If, however, a recent story in The New Yorker is to be believed, the US may help Islamabad secure its nukes.
The story, by journalist Seymour Hersh, said the Barack Obama administration has been “…negotiating highly sensitive understandings with the Pakistani military. These would allow specially trained US units to provide added security for the Pakistani arsenal in case of a crisis”. Denials have been fast and furious: fast by the US state department, and furious by the Pakistani establishment.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
It is difficult to ascertain the truth of a story that has been denied. Two things are, however, certain. First, as Hersh noted in his piece, it is highly unlikely that Pakistan will give the location of its nuclear stockpile, spread over a big country, to the US. Among Pakistani officials and the public at large, there is intense distrust of the US. The unsaid consensus is that in a crisis situation, these weapons are likely to be seized and taken away. This, it is felt, will leave Pakistan defenceless, for nuclear weapons are seen as a guarantee against Indian attempts to annihilate it. This is understandable, for a nation whose daemons have turned against it (as the daily and deadly terrorist strikes show) is bound to be terrified.
There is a bigger question, too. In a short-run crisis situation, it makes good sense to take away certain crucial components (such as the triggering devices) of these weapons. Such steps will deny terrorists access to a functioning nuclear device. From a strategic perspective, however, this makes little sense: If Islamabad’s nuclear weapons are taken away, it can, potentially, alter the balance of power in South Asia. A Pakistan sans its nuclear deterrent will be no match for India. The US will not let that happen. That is where the rub of the problem lies: Terrorists need access to just one weapon, so all weapons (or their parts) have to be taken away (or made dysfunctional). Pakistan will let no one do that. It is a none-or-all situation unless, of course, there are further “understandings” that such weapons will be returned to Pakistan once a crisis is over.
These are difficult issues to resolve. The level of mistrust and conflicts of interest of various kinds make it a messy situation.
Will Pakistan let the US guard its nuclear weapons? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Nov 12 2009. 10 45 PM IST