Two experts have proposed that the US should take pre-emptive action to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons before they fall into the wrong hands.
Frederick Kagan of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and Michael O’Hanlon of the more liberal Brookings Institution argue in an article published in the New York Times on Sunday that the US simply cannot stand by as a nuclear-armed Pakistan descended into the abyss. Nor would it be strategically prudent to withdraw US forces from an improving situation in Iraq to cope with a deteriorating one in Pakistan. While Pakistan’s officer corps and ruling elites remain largely moderate and more interested in building a strong, modern state, the same was true of Iran on the eve of the Islamic revolution. Pakistan’s intelligence services, the two writers maintain, contain enough sympathisers and supporters of the Afghan Taliban, and enough nationalists bent on seizing Kashmir from India, that there are grounds for real worries.
Complete collapse: The likely dangers include the complete collapse of Pakistani government rule that allows an extreme Islamist movement to fill the vacuum, a total loss of federal control over outlying provinces, or a struggle within the Pakistani military in which the minority sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda tries to establish Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
While admitting that all possible military initiatives to avoid those possibilities are daunting, given Pakistan’s size and complexity and the scanty US knowledge about the location of its nuclear weapons, the US would have to act before a complete government collapse, and for that it would need the cooperation of “moderate Pakistani forces”.
Possible plan: One possible plan would be a Special Forces operation with the limited goal of preventing Pakistan’s nuclear materials and warheads from getting into the wrong hands. Given the degree to which Pakistani nationalists cherish these assets, it is unlikely the United States would get permission to destroy them. Somehow, American forces would have to team with Pakistanis to secure critical sites and possibly to move the material to a safer place. For the United States, the safest bet would be shipping the material to someplace like New Mexico, but even pro-American Pakistanis would be unlikely to cooperate. It would be better for the US to settle for establishing a remote redoubt within Pakistan, with the nuclear technology guarded by elite Pakistani forces backed up and watched over by crack international troops. It is realistic to think that such a mission might be undertaken within days of a decision to act. The price for rapid action and secrecy, however, would probably be a very small international coalition.
Support army: Kagan and O’Hanlon suggest that a broader option would involve supporting the core of the Pakistani armed forces as they sought to hold the country together in the face of an ineffective government, seceding border regions and Al Qaeda and Taliban assassination attempts against the leadership. This would require a sizeable combat force from the US, other Western powers and moderate Muslim nations. Since the decline of the Pakistani state is likely to be gradual, it will give the US time to act, they argue. “The most likely directive would be to help Pakistan’s military and security forces hold the country’s center – primarily the region around the capital, Islamabad, and the populous areas like Punjab to its south … If a holding operation in the nation’s centre was successful, the foreign forces would then seek to establish order in the parts of Pakistan where extremists operate. Beyond propping up the state, this would benefit American efforts in Afghanistan by depriving terrorists of the sanctuaries they have long enjoyed in Pakistan’s tribal and frontier regions … There was a time when volatility in places like Pakistan was mostly a humanitarian worry — today it is as much a threat to our basic security as Soviet tanks once were.”