THE other day I happened to read an interesting debate on the control of nuclear weapons. The argument between the two writers was whether civilians or generals should control nuclear weapons. A popular argument is that uniformed personnel should not have control over these weapons as they might have a greater itch to push the button.
The other side of the argument is that considering the nature of political instability in Pakistan, it is the generals rather than the politicians who provide stability. Thus they should be the ones dealing with strategic weapons. Ultimately, this is not an ‘either or’ issue. Nuclear weapons will only be deployed during a crisis once there is consensus among the leadership, both civilian and military, at that time on whether the country is willing to use the option.
Given that Pakistan is improving its relations with India, it is hoped that the need will not arise at all. In fact, several Indian authors have also written about the rationality of Pakistani generals. For example, Rear Admiral (retd) Raja Menon, a prominent Indian strategic analyst, is of the view that the Pakistani military withdrew from forward positions during the Kargil crisis because the generals thought rationally and were in no mood to escalate tensions. It is when the military is open to discussing the crisis that the nation will get to know in what segments of the government rationality prevailed.
In the aforementioned debate, one of the writers pointed out that a civilian prime minister ought to get the briefing. From recent reports it seems that the new premier was given the necessary briefing about defence matters. The only issue relates to what he was told and how much he understood.
The recent history of Kargil shows that the prime minister might have been briefed about the operation but not in depth or he didn’t comprehend what was being explained to him (according to an intercepted telephonic conversation between Generals Musharraf and Aziz, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was briefed on the issue). So, a new prime minister might not actually have a finger on the button but he has to understand in depth the consequences of such a deployment.
However, the more important point made during the discussion focused on the dispersal of nuclear weapons. The argument was that the dispersal of weapons during a crisis could bring about strategic stability since the adversary would not know exactly where to strike. The problem is that the issue of dispersal is closely linked with the country’s internal security scenario.
Given the fact that there is a civil war kind of a situation in two provinces, there aren’t too many options available for the dispersal of weapons. Pakistan has enough professional generals who would be nervous about keeping assets in places where they are less sure of keeping control. The presence of the Taliban in the tribal areas, who have slowly begun to operate close to the settled areas of the Frontier province, does not make deployment in the Frontier a viable option.
The same goes for Balochistan where the armed forces are fighting another war. Recently, two officers of the Military Intelligence were killed in the province. This leaves Punjab and Sindh which also means that although the enemy might still have to search for a needle in a haystack, the size of this stack has become smaller. This raises all sorts of concerns for those worried about the security of the country from outside and within.
Hence, the larger threat to Pakistan’s security is more of a clear and present danger from internal turmoil. This threat might not dissipate until and unless there is a consensus on containing the jihadis completely. Although the military is fighting a war against terrorists, other elements have recently been let off. There is no surety that the Pashtun or Punjabi Taliban would change their tactics after the peace accord.
In fact, as reports indicate, some jihadi organisations such as Jaish-i-Mohammad and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen have resurfaced and held a gathering in Muzaffarabad. Questions must also be asked about deploying Sufi Muhammad of the TSNM to undermine his son-in-law Maulvi Fazlullah who is backed by the Pashtun Taliban. The release of the militants is an approach which might not bode well for the security of nuclear weapons or that of the country in general.
Referring to the issue of civilian versus military control of the weapons what goes without saying is that it is impossible to expect a greater civilian insight into nuclear command and control-related issues. It is precisely the control of the strategic weapons which makes the country and the military high command interesting to the international community that is concerned about the safety and security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan.
Despite that, the Pentagon and the US State Department have established a series of programmes to train Pakistani officers on the security of nuclear assets. There is a certain nervousness in the world which might not necessarily be a commentary on the professionalism of the armed forces. For example, a number of countries including our close friend China is worried about the influence of the jihadis and the Taliban who are constantly making forays into its territory.
Sources indicate that between last year and this year, more than a couple of times the borders were temporarily sealed to stop the inflow of undesirable people into China. Given the menace of the Taliban, even Beijing might be apprehensive regarding the security of Pakistani nuclear assets.
This threat also makes it important for the international community to keep Pakistani authorities engaged in discussion. Since the control is comfortably with the generals, international governments tend to talk to the GHQ in Rawalpindi rather than the prime minister’s office in Islamabad. So, the weapons, which were meant for the security of the entire nation, are also useful in raising the value of the military high command.
Officers are being given opportunities for training abroad and there is a constant dialogue on nuclear security matters. Given the circumstances, there is very little possibility that the command and control will be passed on to the civilian head of government. In any case, the new civilian leadership, which is currently engaged in its own political battles, will have to prove its worth before it is let into the highly secretive world of nuclear decision-making. The issue of who will eventually be the prime minister will have to be decided first before anyone can suggest a strategic transfer of power.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.
Source: Daily Dawn, 2/5/2008