National Security October 2004

Tick, Tick, Tick

Pakistan is a nuclear time bomb—perhaps the greatest threat to American security today. Here's how to defuse it

Under these conditions the emergence of a nuclear-equipped splinter group from within the Pakistani establishment looks disturbingly plausible. Provoked by anger that Musharraf has made Pakistan a puppet of the United States, such a group would have not only a motive and the domestic political support for a nuclear terrorist act against America but also the organizational competence, the expertise, and the raw material to carry it out.

What to do about this combustible mixture of extreme political instability and nuclear capability is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing U.S. policymakers today. (Consider, for instance, how much simpler it is to deal with North Korea's nuclear program, which is controlled by a monolithic regime and not by layers of governmental subagencies that may have conflicting loyalties and ideologies.) Up to now the Bush Administration's response to this challenge has consisted of essentially three ingredients: trying to keep the Pakistani government on America's side in the war on terror (and the Administration deserves credit for carefully nurturing its relationship with Musharraf); examining the possibility of having American forces seize or neutralize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in an emergency; and blindly hoping that the worst does not occur. But hope, as the well-known saying at the Pentagon goes, is not a plan.

Recent history offers something of a model for how to proceed. In August of 1991 a group of conservatives in the Soviet security establishment attempted to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev. Tanks commanded by the coup plotters ringed the Kremlin; Gorbachev, on vacation in the southern part of the country, was placed under house arrest. In the weeks that followed, President George H.W. Bush announced that the United States would unilaterally remove all battlefield nuclear weapons and challenged the Soviet Union to do likewise. The coup was aborted, and Gorbachev responded to Bush's initiative by launching a process that eventually withdrew thousands of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons from the outer reaches of the empire, helping to ensure that the looming dissolution of the Soviet Union would not create more than a dozen new nuclear states. When President Bill Clinton took office, he focused on eliminating the strategic nuclear arsenals that remained in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. By the end of 1996 every one of the nuclear weapons in those states had been deactivated and returned to Russia. Pakistan's situation today is not identical to Russia's in the early 1990s, though the problem of diffused control of nuclear weapons is analogous. But the same lesson applies: it's that alertness in this arena can yield positive results.

Most of what has to be done to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials will have to be done by the Pakistanis themselves—with American encouragement. One of the more enduring legacies of the Musharraf administration may be the Nuclear Command Authority, completed in December of 2003. Designed to impose greater centralized control over the Khan Research Laboratories and the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission, the NCA is headed by Musharraf and vice-chaired by Pakistan's Prime Minister, and is divided into two units—for nuclear weapons and for nuclear scientific personnel—each led by a three-star general.

One option would be for the United States to supply Pakistan with a technology called "permissive action links," which would require Musharraf himself to enter an electronic code before any of the country's nuclear weapons could be deployed. Judging from my conversations with Musharraf last winter, however, the delicacy and sensitivity—and, given the constraints of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the legal difficulty—of such a project can hardly be exaggerated. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is designed first and foremost to deter India. As noted, Pakistan fears that India might locate its nuclear arsenal and destroy its nuclear weapons in a first strike. (Every nuclear power has had similar fears in the early stages of its program.) No reasonable country would divulge information that would leave its arsenal vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. And even though Pakistan is now an ally of the United States in the war against al-Qaeda, can Musharraf be confident that if the United States provides him with permissive action links, it will not retain some undisclosed ability to disable Pakistan's weapons? An offer of U.S. technical and financial assistance—along with diplomatic assistance in the dispute over Kashmir—might incline Musharraf to let us help him secure electronic control over his arsenal. But we must remember that pushing for too much too soon could destabilize Musharraf—or even lead to his overthrow by someone who is more sympathetic to bin Laden than to the United States.

Our unlikely savior here might be, of all countries, China. For many years China has acted as an ally, mentor, and supplier of arms to Pakistan, and the two countries are united by their antagonism toward India. If China were to embrace comprehensive security and control of its own arsenal, and be certified by the United States as having done so, then perhaps Musharraf would permit China and the United States each to review the security procedures for half of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials, so that neither country could have full knowledge of all of Pakistan's arsenal.

The actions required to neutralize the threat of Pakistani proliferation are ambitious; a measure of realism is necessary. But realism need not mean defeatism. In the early 1960s John F. Kennedy predicted that "by 1970 there may be ten nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, fifteen or twenty." If those nations with the technical capacity to build nuclear weapons had gone ahead and done so, Kennedy's prediction would have come true. But his warning helped awaken the world to the dangers of unconstrained proliferation. The United States and other nations negotiated international constraints, provided security guarantees, offered inducements, and threatened punishment. Today 187 nations—including scores that have the technical capacity to build nuclear arsenals—have renounced nuclear weapons and committed themselves to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty; only eight states (not the "fifteen or twenty" of Kennedy's prediction) have nuclear weapons. The challenge now is to achieve similar success in blocking the seemingly inexorable path to a nuclear 9/11.

Presented by

Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, at Harvard University, served as assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton and special adviser to the Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan. His most recent book is Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (2004).

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