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Is Pakistan’s Nuclear Threat Manageable?

In the October Atlantic Monthly magazine, Graham Allison argues that while Pakistan is perhaps the greatest threat to American security today, it can be defused. Allison says that he was more frightened by the reports of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear supplier network than he has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. He says that once Khan’s activities were discovered — “a ‘Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation’ — a decades-old illicit market in nuclear materials, designs, technologies, and consulting services, all run out of Pakistan,” the Pakistani response was to grant Khan a pardon. Allison continues, “Pakistani investigators have reportedly questioned a grand total of eleven people from among the country’s 6,000 nuclear scientists and 45,000 nuclear workers, and have refused to allow either the United States or the IAEA access to Khan for questioning.”

Allison says that in August 2001, Osama bin Laden met with two former officials of Pakistan’s atomic energy program, where bin Laden and his second-in-command Zawahiri grilled them about how to make weapons of mass destruction. Then Allison raises the issue that has most alarmed me, “that a coup might topple Musharraf and leave all or some of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons under the control of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or some other militant Islamic group (or, indeed, under the control of more than one).”

Allison proposes that Pakistan generally follow the model of the Soviet Union as it was disintegrating; the USSR pulled most of its nuclear weapons back from states that were on the verge of becoming independent, leaving them only in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, from which they were removed later. Another move would be for the US to help Pakistan install “permissive action links” (PALs) on all nuclear weapons, requiring Musharraf’s personal approval before a nuclear weapon could be used. Allison argues that Pakistan would be unlikely to tell the US where all of its nuclear weapons are, but it might tell the US about some and China about the remaining ones.

Pakistan is unlikely to agree to either course of action proposed by Allison. As he says, Pakistan’s main nuclear rival is India, and while peace talks between the two are ongoing, they will have to get a lot better, as will the situation in Kashmir, before Musharraf can be perceived by the Pakistani population as caving to international pressure to impose stricter controls on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

As I noted earlier, it’s unlikely that anything will happen on this front until there are some serious arms control negotiations among all the powers possessing nuclear weapons, including the US and Israel. One of the underlying assumptions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is that the old nuclear powers, the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, etc., would engage in serious disarmament negotiations, which has not happened. Bush has shown contempt for such negotiations, and further undermined the concept by withdrawing from the ABM treaty. If anything, the Bush administration’s conduct has shown how important it believes the possession of nuclear weapons is in order to be a superpower. Other countries are likely to follow the US example and ignore disarmament as an option.

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