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Monday, July 15, 2024

 U.S apprehensions about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

Apprehensions of the U.S policymakers and think tanks about Pakistan's nuclear programme reflect America's disappointments and frustrations with Pakistan.

I have written about the existence of a strong lobby in the West that presses for seizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons on the pretext that Pakistan is a highly fragile state. Their despondence is often mirrored in unguarded remarks such as those made by President Joe Biden a few days ago. Apprehensions of the U.S policymakers and think tanks about Pakistan’s nuclear program reflect America’s disappointments and frustrations with Pakistan – a country which  Goldberg and Ambinder have labeled as “The Ally from Hell”. Jeffrey Goldberg is the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic. Marc Ambinder is an American university professor, journalist, and television producer He is a former politics editor at the Atlantic and a White House Correspondent. These two journalists, in an article jointly written  in 2011, wrote:

Much of the world is anxious about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and for good reason: Pakistan is an unstable and violent country located at the epicenter of global jihadism, and it has been the foremost supplier of nuclear technology to such rogue states as Iran and North Korea. It is perfectly sensible to believe that Pakistan might not be the safest place on Earth to warehouse 100 or more nuclear weapons. These weapons are stored on bases and in facilities spread across the country (possibly including one within several miles of Abbottabad, a city that, in addition to having hosted Osama bin Laden, is home to many partisans of the jihadist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen). Western leaders have stated that a paramount goal of their counterterrorism efforts is to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of jihadists.”

U.S. war plans about Pakistan

After adumbrating the perimeters of the threat posed by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Goldberg & Ambinder (2011) next, narrate Pentagon’s plans to deal with the perceived threat. They mention that during senate hearings for her confirmation as secretary of state in 2005, Condoleezza Rise had remarked: “We have noted this problem and we are prepared to try to deal with it”.

Goldberg & Ambinder describe Pentagon’s plans for dealing with various contingencies involving the Pakistani nuclear crisis as follows:-

  1. If a single weapon or a small amount of nuclear material were to go missing, the response would be contained – Abbottabad redux.
  2. Seizing control of –or at least disabling – the entire Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the event of a Jihadist coup or other catastrophic event. The scale of such an operation would be too large. An across-the-board campaign would be led by U.S. Central Command.
  3. In a larger disablement campaign, the U.S. would likely mobilize the Army’s 20th Support Command, whose Nuclear Disablement Teams would accompany Special Operations detachments or Marine companies into the country.
  4. At the same time, the U.S. military and intelligence forces have been quietly pre-positioning the necessary equipment in the region. In the event of a coup, U.S forces would rush into the country, crossing borders, rappelling down from helicopters, and parachuting out of planes, so they can secure known or suspected nuclear storage sites. Their first task might be to disable tactical nuclear weapons – because those are more easily mated, and easier to move around, than long-range missiles.

The fact that Pakistan’s nuclear programme is India-centric is even silently acknowledged by Israel. Whereas Israel considers Iran’s nuclear programme an existential threat to the Jewish state and has vowed to destroy it, it has not expressed a similar concern about the Pakistani bomb. The planned joint Indo-Israeli operation in the 1980s against Kahuta did not materialize because Israel did not press India to provide its aircraft refueling facility in Jamnagar.

Read more: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons: Guarantor of deterrence and survival

However, sometime in the future, America and Israel may decide, either because of their calculations or prompting from India, that the nuclear threat from Pakistan is as grave as the Iranian threat. In such an eventuality, America, in concert with Israel and India will take drastic action against Pakistan similar to the one America is contemplating against Iran.

How will such an operation develop? After running out of soft options to de-nuclearize Pakistan, the U.S may resort to a kinetic operation. Taking a leaf from a similar U.S contingency plan to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability,  the US military response to the nuclear threat from Pakistan will most likely be based on airpower because, given the experience of Iraq, the US does not have the appetite for ground action against countries as large as Iran and Pakistan. However, there are two major problems:-

  1. As a result of dispersal and hardening, some of the nuclear facilities will survive a conventional air attack.
  2. The destruction of facilities will delay the programme, but most of the threat is contained in the knowledge of its engineers. Eventually, the programme will be resurrected.

To address these problems, Robb recommended a regime change in Iran through a rapidly evolving method of air warfare called the “effects-based operation” (EBO). The same method will apply to Pakistan. Iran and Pakistan are both urbanized countries and their populations rely on national networks vulnerable to disruption and manipulation. An EBO will break down Iran and Pakistan’s critical systems, eliminating critical nodes within their electricity, communications, transportation, military, and industrial systems. This will cease all governmental and economic functions in these countries, shutting them off till their regimes change. Simultaneously, the US will arm and actively support ethnic guerrillas (Kurds, Balochs, and Azeris, in the case of Iran; Balochi and Sindhi separatists, and TTP, etc., in Pakistan’s case) to turn sections of these two countries into autonomous zones. However, these projected U.S military operations against Iran and Pakistan will be launched separately, at different times.

Read more: Pakistan’s nuclear program again under attack?

The likely air offensive will come from the US carrier groups currently operating in the Arabian Sea south of Iran and Pakistan. With the destruction of their command and control apparatus, the governments in these countries will eventually collapse. Hopefully, for the Americans, the new regimes which replace the sitting governments will be more pliant and receptive to the American demand for nuclear deals similar to those America concluded with Kazakhstan, Libya, South Africa, and Ukraine. All these countries willingly agreed or were coerced, to give up their weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Will a kinetic operation to seize the target country’s nuclear arsenal succeed?

In the wake of Operation Desert Storm, Iran decentralized the command and control structure of its military and security forces, allowing them to keep operating autonomously if the central authority collapsed. So did Pakistan. Even after the collapse of their critical systems, a limp central authority will survive and, using primitive means, continue guiding national resistance movements on the ground. This, along with the fact that both Iran and Pakistan have dispersed their nuclear assets, implies that America will be forced to induct its ground forces to physically wrest these assets, something Americans would want to avoid.

The history of airpower is rife with Robb-like suggestions. In the final analysis, wars are still won by Mk 1 Grunt and his rifle. In Pakistan’s case power is shared by the political government and the Army. The latter is also the custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It is perhaps for this reason Pakistan employs a disproportionately large force (a complete Army corps) to guard its nuclear assets. This again implies that the US forces will be embroiled with Pakistani forces in a widely dispersed ground operation to get hold of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, something the Americans are loathed to do.



Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.