News around global nuclear proliferation in recent days has largely surrounded North Korea, whose nuclear missile tests horrified the international community earlier this year. But a recent report by the Harvard Kennedy School says that there is in fact a far graver threat to the world than North Korea or Iran.
“Overall, the risk of nuclear theft in Pakistan appears to be high,” the Kennedy School report said, under the title ‘Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline?’ The report blamed Pakistan’s recent shifts toward tactical nuclear weapons for the heightened threat of nuclear theft.
This isn’t the first time fears have been raised around the security of Pakistan’s nuclear establishment. Last week, the US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Pakistan’s deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons was a cause for concern. “Battlefield nuclear weapons, by their very nature, pose security threat,” Gottemoeller said, “because you’re taking battlefield nuclear weapons out to the field where, as a necessity, they cannot be made as secure.”
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal does, in fact, deserve greater global attention than North Korea’s – or Iran’s non-existent one. Neither North Korea nor Iran face the dangers that challenge the security of Pakistan’s nuclear installments. For all of Kim Jong-un’s recurrent antics, North Korea is still a strong, centralized state, with no threats posed to the dictator’s hold on power – or his control over the country’s nuclear arsenal.
In Iran, an increasingly vocal middle class, led by President Hassan Rouhani, has begun to ensure that Tehran is unlikely to turn trigger-happy any time soon, least of all once the economy begins to integrate itself with the rest of the world.
But none of this is true in the case of Pakistan. Pakistan’s state machinery has been weakened significantly over time, owing to the prolonged battle for power between the civilian government and the military establishment. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s control over his country’s nuclear arsenal is highly debatable. But even the Pakistani army is not quite as strong an institution as many would think.
A report by the Indian Defence Review in 2014 found that the Pakistani army establishment was beginning to lose its own cadre to radical groups in the country. “The most serious implication of [the] onward march of the Taliban has been the radicalisation of Pakistan’s armed forces,” the report said, adding that an increasing number of Pakistani army personnel now profess radical Islamist views that make them averse to the idea of fighting terror groups. Even as early as in 2006, the report said, six middle-ranking officers were court-martialled for refusing to fight militants in the radical-infested FATA region, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The radicalization of army personnel in Pakistan, and their increasing sympathies towards radical groups in the country, further endanger the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. If soldiers were to defect, so will access to nuclear weapons, over time.
And given the number of radical groups that occupy parts of the country and the power struggle among them, this dystopian proposition isn’t all so far-fetched. Early last year, the Islamic State (ISIS) announced the establishment of a ‘province’ in Khorasan, an area encompassing parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. ISIS has since managed to coax away militants from other groups, triggering a vicious spiral of mutual one-upmanship between radical outfits and further adding to chronic instability.
Yet, despite the threat of theft, Pakistan’s nuclear expansion shows no signs of abating. The Federation of American Scientists believes that Pakistan currently holds 130 nuclear warheads – 10 more than India and 50 more than Israel (by contrast, North Korea has only 10 warheads and Iran has none). And in a decade’s time, experts say, Pakistan could have at least 350 nuclear weapons, making it the third-largest stockpile in the world behind only the United States and Russia.
Washington hosts a high-profile nuclear security summit later this month, with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in attendance. The two leaders are likely to meet each other one more time, on the sidelines of the summit, signaling yet another effort on Modi’s part to reach out to Pakistan.
New Delhi’s rather benign approach towards Islamabad, despite repeated terror attacks on Indian soil, gives no reason for Pakistan to pursue a policy of nuclear expansion. Maybe this time, the world would focus on the actual threat emanating from Pakistan rather than on the non-existent threat in Iran and the over-hyped one in North Korea.
Mohamed Zeeshan is a policy analyst based in Bangalore, India. He also writes for The Diplomat and The Huffington Post.
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