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Pakistan’s rush for more bombs — why?

by Pervez Hoodbhoy, 31 January 2012

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The Express Tribune

January 29, 2012

On January 24, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon vented his frustration
at Pakistan’s determined opposition to a treaty that would limit
fissile material production for use in nuclear weapons. For three
years, Pakistan has single-handedly — and successfully — blocked the
Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva from discussing an effort
that would reduce nuclear weapons globally. Consequently, within
diplomatic circles, Pakistan has acquired the reputation of an outlier
that opposes all efforts towards this end.

The opposition comes in the backdrop of news that Pakistan has the
world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal. This claim — which still
reverberates around the world — was first published in a Bulletin of
Atomic Scientists report entitled “Pakistan’s nuclear forces — 2011”.
The authors, Hans M Kristensen and Robert S Norris, say although the
numbers of Pakistani warheads and delivery vehicles is a closely-held
secret, yet “we estimate that Pakistan has a nuclear weapons stockpile
of 90-110 nuclear warheads, an increase from the estimated 70-90
warheads in 2009”. They reckon that if the expansion continues,
Pakistan’s stockpile could reach 150-200 in a few years. By this
count, Pakistan’s arsenal may have already exceeded India’s, and will
soon rival Britain’s.

The Bulletin report has not been denied by Pakistan. Its stockpile of
highly enriched uranium is increased daily by thousands of centrifuges
whirring away at the Kahuta Laboratory (and possibly elsewhere). This
is augmented by plutonium producing reactors at Khushab; two are
already at work and a third is undergoing trials. Google Earth photos
show that a fourth one is under construction. The plutonium has no
commercial purpose. Instead, the goal is to produce lighter but
deadlier bombs to be fitted on to missile tips.

Pakistan’s position is that it needs to produce still more bombs — and
hence more bomb materials — because of India. It cites the US-India
nuclear deal, along with older issues related to verification problems
and existing stocks. Indeed, that infamous deal is Pakistan’s
strongest argument and a correct criticism: the US has committed
itself to nuclear cooperation with a state that is not a signatory to
the NPT and one that made nuclear weapons surreptitiously. Now that
the sanctions once imposed are long gone, India can import advanced
nuclear reactor technology as well as natural uranium ore from diverse
sources — Australia included. Although imported ore cannot be used for
bomb-making, India could in principle divert more of its scarce
domestic ore towards military reactors. Pakistan also says that “Cold
Start” — an operation conceived by the Indian military in response to
more Mumbai-type attacks — requires it to prepare tactical nuclear
weapons for battlefield use.
But the US-India nuclear deal may actually be a fig leaf. Pakistan’s
rush for more bombs has as much to do with its changing relationship
with the United States as with Indian military modernisation.

This racing reflects a paradigm shift within Pakistan’s military
establishment, where feelings against the US have steadily hardened
over many years. Post-bin Laden, the change is starkly visible.
In the military’s mind, the Americans are now a threat, equal to or
larger than India. They are also considered more of an adversary than
even the TTP jihadists who have killed thousands of Pakistani troops
and civilians. While the Salala incident was allowed to inflame public
opinion, the gory video-taped executions of Pakistani soldiers by the
TTP were played down. A further indication is that the LeT/JuD is back
in favor (with a mammoth anti-US and anti-India rally scheduled in
Karachi next month). Pakistani animosity rises as it sees America
tightly embracing India, and standing in the way of a
Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul. Once again “strategic defiance”
is gaining ground, albeit not through the regional compact suggested
by General Mirza Aslam Beg in the early 1990s.
This attitudinal shift has created two strong non-India reasons that
favour ramping up bomb production.

First, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are seen to be threatened by
America. This perception has been reinforced by the large amount of
attention given to the issue in the US mainstream press, and by
war-gaming exercises in US military institutes. Thus, redundancy is
considered desirable — an American attempt to seize or destroy all
warheads would have smaller chances of success if Pakistan had more.

But such an attack is improbable. It is difficult to imagine any
circumstances — except possibly the most extreme — in which the US
would risk going to war against another nuclear state. Even if
Pakistan had just a handful of weapons, no outside power could
accurately know the coordinates of the mobile units on which they are
located. It is said that an extensive network of underground tunnels
exists within which they can be freely moved. Additionally, overground
ones are moved from place to place periodically in unmarked trucks.
Mobile dummies and decoys can hugely compound difficulties. Moreover,
even if a nuclear location was exactly known, it would surely be
heavily guarded. This implies many casualties when intruding troops
are engaged, thus making a secret bin-Laden type operation impossible.

The second – and perhaps more important — reason for the accelerated
nuclear development is left unstated: nukes act as insurance against
things going too far wrong. Like North Korea, Pakistan knows that, no
matter what, international financial donors will feel compelled to
keep pumping in funds. Else a collapsing system may be unable to
prevent some of its hundred-plus Hiroshima-sized nukes from
disappearing into the darkness.

This insurance could become increasingly important as Pakistan moves
deeper into political isolation and economic difficulties mount. Even
today, load-shedding and fuel shortages routinely shut down industries
and transport for long stretches, imports far exceed exports,
inflation is at the double-digit level, foreign direct investment is
negligible because of concerns over physical security, tax collection
remains minimal, and corruption remains unchecked. An African country
like Somalia or Congo would have sunk under this weight long ago.

To conclude: throwing a spanner in the works at the CD (Geneva) may
well be popular as an act of defiance. Indeed, many in Pakistan — like
Hamid Gul and Imran Khan — derive delicious satisfaction from spiting
the world in such ways. But this is not wise for a state that
perpetually hovers at the edge of bankruptcy, and which derives most
of its worker remittances and export earnings from the very countries
it delights in mocking.

P.S.

The above article from The Express Tribune is reproduced here for non commercial and educational use.