TCS Daily

Our Pakistan Problem

By Mark Stewart - February 4, 2008 12:00 AM

Speaking recently at the University of North Florida, former CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid offered an interesting insight about the dangers faced by the United States, saying that what kept him up at night during his tenure as the officer responsible for US operations in Southwest Asia was not the state of affairs in Iraq; it was the potential for a loss of control in Pakistan.

Scenarios in which the Pakistani government loses control are easy to come by and disturbingly plausible. Changes in Pakistani government tend to occur suddenly and are rarely determined by election outcomes.

Pakistan is not a nation firmly under the control of Islamabad. Tribal militias in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) openly challenge the Pakistani Army for local control in the mountainous terrain bordering Afghanistan. Musharraf's government, thus far militarily unsuccessful, has been negotiating with these groups off and on since 2006, when it signed the Waziristan Accord, agreeing to limit military and security operations in North and South Waziristan. These are areas thick with al Qaeda sympathizers.

Government breakdown in Pakistan would seriously hamper US efforts in Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism, but the gravest danger of a Pakistani anarchy is well known: Al Qaeda and its affiliates desperately desire to acquire a nuclear weapon, and it is the scenario of a Pakistani government breakdown that would seem most likely to provide such a weapon to the Islamists.

The prospects for effectively responding to a Pakistani loss of control are bleak. If a breakdown took place, it would be very difficult to secure or destroy Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. The situation may arise with little or no warning and could worsen rapidly. Targeting of nuclear weapons in Pakistan would require timely, accurate information of the most tightly guarded sort. Obtaining such information and then acting on it before it becomes stale would require the presence of forces and the existence of complex plans that may take time unlikely to be available.

To understand just how difficult securing or destroying Pakistani nuclear weapons would be, consider the likely characteristics of Pakistani nuclear doctrine. Pakistan maintains its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to its primary adversary, India. Nuclear deterrence is only credible if reliable, so that achieving and maintaining reliability is probably the highest priority in the organization and deployment of Pakistani nuclear weapons. Assuming that Pakistan's design and manufacture of nuclear weapons are solidly competent, which its nuclear tests indicate that they are, we are left to consider Pakistani methods of command and control and means for delivery of the weapons to their targets.

Command and control of Pakistani weapons changed sometime after the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Pakistan now vests operational control of its nuclear weapons in a ten member National Command Authority (NCA) composed of both military and civilian leadership. Release of nuclear weapons to the military's strategic forces requires a majority vote of the National Command Authority. As far as the nature of the system to prevent use of nuclear weapons without NCA release, little is known other than that Pakistan does not employ the permissive action links technology used to secure American weapons.

The delivery means favored by Pakistan is unknown. Pakistan possesses combat aircraft and ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and most likely uses both means. While Pakistani combat aircraft can strike deeper into Indian territory than the Pakistani missile force, missiles offer several offsetting advantages: They do not require runways to take off, they arrive at their targets faster than any strike aircraft can, and the Indian military has no way of stopping them once launched. Additionally, the most dangerous of the ballistic missiles Pakistan is known or thought to possess are suitable for deployment on heavy trucks known as tractor erector launchers (TELs). TELs, as their full name implies, are used to move, prepare, and launch ballistic missiles. They are large, ungainly vehicles with some off-highway ability and they allow a strategic missile force to disperse over a wide area, thus creating a large number of targets that an adversary would have a very difficult time striking, especially if such strikes need to be simultaneous in order to spoil a retaliatory strike. Because of their mobility, missiles carried by TELs can be shifted around often, thereby rendering an adversary's targeting information invalid very quickly. If the majority of Pakistan's nuclear weapons are not ready for deployment among their mobile missile forces now, then it is reasonable to expect that they will be in the near future.

Means of delivery must be considered in the context of nuclear posture, or the degree to which nuclear weapons are physically ready for use against an enemy. During periods of relative peace, Pakistani nuclear weapons are believed to be stored separately from their delivery means. During periods of high tension, however, Pakistan may move its weapons out of storage and deploy them into the field, as occurred during the 1999 Kargil War. Particularly with regard to the missile forces, the danger of a nuclear weapon loss would seem to be higher during deployment, as weapons disperse on TELs, away from their secure storage facilities. Such a period of increased external tension may also place the Pakistani leadership at greater risk of a loss of control as internal pressures increase among the various actors within Pakistan. (President Musharraf himself seized power in a military coup following shortly after the end of the Kargil War.)

Imagine a scenario in which Pakistan and India are at high states of alert, nuclear forces dispersed and ready, and then, without warning, the members of the Pakistani senior leadership are dead and there is a power struggle among the strongest remaining actors to consolidate control. The chain of command is fractured, and Pakistani military units begin to separate along political fault lines. The situation continues to deteriorate by the hour. Would the US act? If so, would it be in time? What would be the cost of such action? What would be the cost of inaction?

Regardless of the public rejection of American interference in Pakistani internal affairs, the probability of such a crisis occurring is too high and the stakes are too great for the United States to take a hands-off approach. The problems of Pakistani stability are not solely the problems of Pakistan. They are now the problems of the world. They became so on 28 May 1998, when Pakistan detonated their first nuclear bomb.


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