According to U.S. military planners, preparations for the emergency denuclearization of Pakistan are on par with only two other priority-one global-crisis plans: one involves the possible U.S. invasion of Iran and the other involves a possible conflict with China. All three of these potential crises are considered low-probability but high-risk, to be prepared for accordingly.
Another plausible nuclear scenario is that India and Pakistan will once again go to war, with potentially cataclysmic consequences. One scenario advanced frequently by analysts sees Pakistan and India descending into armed confrontation after another Mumbai-style attack launched by the allegedly ISI-affiliated Lashkar-e-Taiba, or by another of the jihadist groups given shelter and aid in Pakistan. India, in a feat of forbearance, did not respond militarily to the November 2008 attacks, but its defense minister warned in June: “If a provocation is to happen again, I think it would be hard to justify to our people such a self-restraint.”
If an attack should happen, it might not necessarily be prompted by a specific ISI order. Lashkar-e-Taiba, like other groups supported and protected by the Pakistani government, does not have a perfect record of complying with ISI instructions, according to a Pakistani source familiar with the relationship. Even though Lashkar cells maintain contact with ISI officers, they operate according to their own desires and schedules. “The ISI funds them and protects them, but doesn’t always control their choice of targets and timing,” the Pakistani source says.
David Albright, a physicist and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, imagines the scenario this way: “India responds to an act of terrorism with a conventional attack inside Pakistan, on the base of the group that committed the act, and it escalates from there. India could target the facilities of the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program, and then you have the real risk of escalation, because of Pakistani paranoia that India is trying to take away its nuclear arsenal.”
Experts worry about the accidental launch of a nuclear warhead during a period of high tension between Pakistan and India, or that rogue elements inside the Pakistani military will take it upon themselves to initiate a nuclear attack. On paper, Pakistan’s nuclear command-and-control body, the National Command Authority, is overseen by the civilian prime minister, working in conjunction with the country’s military leaders—but the military controls the system of enabling and authenticating codes that would be transmitted to strategic forces in the event of a nuclear alert. Pakistan’s nuclear posture is opaque, however, and the U.S. has many questions about how the authority to use the weapons is delegated.
In 2006, General Kidwai, the SPD leader, told a U.S. audience at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, that Pakistan maintained for its nuclear arsenal the functional equivalent of two-person control and permissive action links, or PALs—coded locks meant to prevent unauthorized arming of a weapon. When asked about Pakistan’s PAL protocols, one former U.S. defense official replied, “It has never been clear to me what Pakistani PALs really entail. The doctrine is ‘two people’—but is it two people to unlock the box around the warhead, or is it two people to launch the thing once you’ve mated the warhead to the missile?” (India, in contrast, has been more transparent about its nuclear posture; unlike Pakistan, it has pledged not to use nuclear weapons first—only in response.)
The policy goals of the Obama administration are focused not on Pakistan’s nuclear program, but rather on the terrorist groups based there. “Our core goal is to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qaeda,” one senior administration official says. “This is a very clarifying way to think about what we are doing and why cooperation with Pakistan is important.”
This narrow focus has led to some achievements—not only the bin Laden raid, which was obviously accomplished without the cooperation of the ISI, but also the capture or killing (with the ISI’s help) of several other al-Qaeda figures over the years. This focus on al-Qaeda may have sidelined other tactical priorities (such as trying to disrupt and defeat Pakistani groups providing assistance to the Afghan Taliban) and has led to some uncomfortable trade-offs. When asked why the U.S. doesn’t target the factories located on Pakistani territory that produce the improvised explosive devices deployed by the Taliban against American troops inside Afghanistan, the same senior Obama-administration official said: “What we want to do, above all else, is not lose progress on the core goal” of defeating al-Qaeda, a goal that calls for continuing to cooperate with, and to fund, the ISI. So: the U.S. funds the ISI; the ISI funds the Haqqani network; and the Haqqani network kills American soldiers.
Another senior administration official, when presented with this formula, said: “It’s not as simple as that. We’ve identified a core interest, and we wouldn’t have been able to make as much progress as we’ve made, without Pakistan. A lot of the assistance we provide them is focused on specific counterterrorism issues. This is not just cutting a check.” Money, of course, is fungible—funds earmarked for fighting al-Qaeda can end up supporting the Haqqani network, which is fighting the United States. But, the senior official said, “we have demonstrated that we will impose restrictions on assistance, and withhold assistance for a time, if the Pakistanis aren’t cooperating with us”—a reference to a recent decision by the administration to temporarily hold back $800 million in reimbursements for counterterror activities and other military aid.
To Stephen P. Cohen, the Pakistan analyst at Brookings, the administration’s singular focus on al-Qaeda means that American policy makers are not focused on larger issues. The rationale for continued, even heightened, engagement with Pakistan, he said, is that the country is “too nuclear to fail.” The arguments made by the administration about the importance of focusing on al-Qaeda at the expense of focusing on Pakistan per se remind Cohen of arguments from the Cold War. “It’s the same line I heard 20 years ago in the State Department,” he says. “The program was to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan. We privileged one goal over another. In Pakistan we have several goals, but we are ignoring the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program, ignoring India-Pakistan relations, ignoring the country’s growing societal degradation. We have to have a better policy than keeping our fingers crossed.”
Few policy makers believe that cutting aid to Islamabad is practical, especially while American troops in Afghanistan depend on supplies trucked through Pakistan. Even Admiral Mullen, who has been disillusioned by the behavior of Pakistan’s ruling generals, argued before the Senate Armed Services Committee just prior to his retirement that the U.S. must not give up on its relationship with Pakistan. “Now is not the time to disengage from Pakistan; we must, instead, reframe our relationship,” he said. “A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement.”
Influential lawmakers have argued that the U.S. should not hesitate to strike at targets inside Pakistan that threaten American interests. American drones, of course, operate in the skies over Pakistan’s northern tribal areas, but these missions are generally conducted against jihadists who have also turned against the Pakistani government. But some lawmakers, such as Lindsey Graham, the senior Republican senator from South Carolina, suggest that the U.S. take a more unilateral approach to its own defense. “The sovereign nation of Pakistan is engaging in hostile acts against the United States, and our ally Afghanistan, that must cease,” Graham recently told Fox News Sunday. “If the experts believe that we need to elevate our response, they will have a lot of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.”
Talk like this has apparently concentrated the attention of Pakistan’s military leaders, as it has in the past: recall that the Pakistanis fired an ISI chief after the administration of President George H. W. Bush threatened to place Pakistan on the list of state sponsors of terror. But this sort of rhetoric must be accompanied by efforts to heighten U.S. engagement. On one level, it is perverse to speak of expanding a relationship with a country so obviously working against so many U.S. interests. But a new, revamped policy is obviously needed—an honest one, as Admiral Mullen has indicated, in which strategic differences are ventilated rather than papered over, and in which the U.S. broadens its engagement with all sectors of Pakistani society. There is very little that agitates Pakistani leaders more than the feeling that the United States is being disrespectful to their country—particularly in failing to acknowledge the thousands of Pakistani victims killed by militants during the war on terror. The “riot act” should no longer be read, or at least not read publicly. Americans have been reading the riot act to the Pakistanis for at least 20 years over the issue of terrorism, and it hasn’t worked. This should motivate American policy makers to devise a new approach, while remaining focused on the most important goal: keeping Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal secure and holstered.
“South Asia remains the most dangerous nuclear-confrontation zone in the world, and these are not issues we can solve unilaterally,” says Toby Dalton, the deputy director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Department of Energy representative at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. “We share a common goal with Pakistan, in preventing nuclear war and preventing terrorists from gaining access to a nuclear weapon. We have to work with them on nuclear security and have meaningful technical exchanges on best practices. This has to continue.”
The United States must, for its own security, keep watch over Pakistan’s nuclear program—and that’s more easily done if we remain engaged with the Pakistani government. The U.S. must also be able to receive information from the ISI about al-Qaeda, even if such information is provided sporadically. And the U.S. will simply not find a way out of Afghanistan if Pakistan becomes an open enemy. Pakistan, for its part, can afford to lose neither America’s direct financial support, nor the help America provides with international lending agencies. Nor can Pakistan’s military afford to lose its access to American weapons systems, and to the trainers attached to them. Economically, Pakistan cannot afford to be isolated by America in the way the U.S. isolates countries it considers sponsors of terrorism. Its neighbor Iran is an object lesson in this regard. For all these reasons, Pakistan and America remain locked in a hostile embrace.
There is no escaping this vexed relationship—and little evidence to suggest that it will soon improve. But the American officials in closest contact with the Pakistanis—Admiral Mullen being the notable exception—still seem predisposed to optimism, apparently embracing the belief that Islamabad will change through tough love. A senior U.S. intelligence official told us that General David Petraeus, the new director of the CIA, says he believes he can rebuild relations with the ISI, because he has “a good personal relationship with these guys.”