A joint report on Pakistan by the Atlantic Magazine and the National Journal highlights some important issues in U.S.-Pakistani relations with regards to nuclear weapons. It also offers insight into the geopolitical situation that plagues the region as a whole, such as the conflict in Afghanistan, the rivalry between India and Pakistan, and Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions. The main aim of the U.S. should be to ensure the security of nuclear weapons and vulnerable nuclear weapons material in the region even though this entails looking at a broader range of issues than the threat posed by terrorism.
In the report, Graham Allison, an expert on nuclear weapons from the Belfer Center at Harvard, argues that there are three big threats with regards to Pakistan and nuclear weapons:
1. A terrorist theft of nuclear weapons (a nuclear 9/11 or Mumbai).
- The transfer of nuclear weapons to a state like Iran.
- The takeover of a nuclear weapon by a military group during a period of state instability.
The American ambition in Pakistan clearly focuses on the elimination of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet it appears as though many in Pakistan fear the U.S. more than al-Qaeda. They seem willing to take inadequate security measures (thereby making their nukes more available to terrorists) in order to more easily hide them from the U.S. Pakistanis furthermore seem to resent what they view as a patronizing U.S. attitude toward Islamabad. This was evident when Secretary Clinton visited the country in October 2011 and was told that the U.S. is like a hard-to-please mother in law.
The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan is a complex one, riddled with paradoxes, mistrust and suspicion. On the one hand, Pakistan relies on the U.S. for aid. On the other hand, many Pakistanis in high places consider America to be their enemy, especially in light of strong U.S. support for India’s regional ambitions. Similarly, the U.S. needs Pakistan to help in Afghanistan as well as for sharing information on al-Qaeda, yet we know that Pakistan only selectively shares information and that they support certain terrorist organisations.
Where do we go from here?
Perhaps most importantly, a regional focus needs to be applied. The problem of securing vulnerable nuclear materials in Pakistan cannot and should not be viewed in isolation from other security issues in the region, particularly Pakistan’s strategic competition with India. We need to be mindful of the roots of Pakistani insecurity and the underlying problem of Pakistan’s inferiority complex with regards to New Delhi.
As Henry Kissinger phrased it at a Wilson Center event on November 1:
“The problem of Pakistan seems to me a much more long term issue, namely how they can find a national identity not based primarily on fear of India.”
This observation ties into the fear of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. One of the terrorist organisations supported by officials in Pakistan is Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
In a similar vein to what the report in the Atlantic Magazine argued, a functioning U.S. relationship with Pakistan remains vital, though we should not pretend that the two sides share similar goals.
As Georgetown Professor C. Christine Far recently told Congress, “Washington has no choice but to acknowledge that U.S. and Pakistan interests and allies are fundamentally incompatible while also understanding the essential need to stay engaged in spite of this fact.”
We should not be blinded by the elimination of al-Qaeda and the Taliban as our only goal. Instead, making sure that vulnerable nuclear material in Pakistan remains safe should also be an urgent priority.