Jeffrey Goldberg’s terrific piece in the Atlantic Monthly on Pakistan’s nuclear program had an important detail. Since the raid on Abbotabad, in which OBL was killed, Pakistan’s fears for its nukes have increased. They see the primary danger to their nukes as coming, not from jihadis, but from Indian or American agents. The OBL raid (on top of years of American drone strikes) demonstrated to the Pakistanis that they do not really have control over their own airspace. The response, Goldberg reports, is to shuttle nukes between various sites – by unmarked van. This may perplex US intelligence, but it dramatically increases vulnerability to Pakistani jihadis.
Of course, as Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling points out, possessing one nuke may not do a terrorist group much good. They are complicated devices and the only way to be certain it works is to actually detonate it. Still, the prospect of Pakistan’s jihadis acquiring one is worrisome.
While American frustration with the Pakistanis is well-earned, Pakistani paranoia about the safety of their nukes is not completely irrational. It is difficult to imagine any nuclear-armed country being comfortable with the knowledge that another power can penetrate their airspace at will and carry out complex armed operations. Reportedly, for many Russians, the Nunn-Lugar program which was intended to help the Russians secure their nuclear infrastructure is seen by many “Russians on the street” is obviously being a devious American plan to secretly take control of their nukes.
For that matter, it is difficult to imagine Americans being sanguine in a comparable situation. That Goldberg provides some modest detail about what an American military plan to secure Pakistani nukes might look like cannot but further inflame Pakistani fears. Hopefully Pakistani leaders will also notice Goldberg’s claim that China will tolerate an American effort against Pakistan’s nukes. China and Pakistan have a long, deep relationship. Pakistan has touted China as a true friend and sought to turn to them to replace their American patrons who place all kinds of moral demands on them. But the Chinese aren’t stupid. They do value Pakistan, as a balance against India and as an ally when approaching the Muslim world. But they almost certainly recognize the complexities of the place and don’t want to get dragged in too deep.
Goldberg notes, and most observers share this view, that the focus on hitting al-Qaeda has prevented a wide-range of other key issues from being raised effectively with the Pakistanis. There are no shortage, of these issues – but the biggest one – as I’ve written before is Pakistan’s slow motion collapse as a state. The combination of increasing economic pressures, environmental catastrophe, ethnic splits, and weakening institutions makes it tough to see how the state can hold together. Pakistan is more akin to a nuclear-armed Yemen. The whole state is a bomb.
One would like to think that a “Marshall Plan” for Pakistan could turn the place around. But the historic weakness of Pakistani institutions makes this unlikely. The resources exist within the country for a turnaround. About a quarter of the national budget is spent on defense, Pakistan’s wealthiest don’t pay taxes, and much of the economy is part of the unofficial sector. Properly harnessed and turned to critical needs – such as revitalizing agriculture and building a proper education system – and a more prosperous, stronger Pakistan could emerge. But these things do not occur quickly and the turnaround time is decreasing fast.