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Pakistani Nuclear Politics: Slippery Slope which strengthens Military Gum Boots


According to me, mainstreaming a nuclear Pakistan with a nuclear deal at current stage is a slippery slope which will only strengthen the military gum boots in Pakistan.

A new report by the Carnegie-Stimson[1] collaboration proposes that Pakistan consider the following five nuclear weapon-related initiatives: • Shift declaratory policy from “full spectrum” to “strategic” deterrence. • Commit to a recessed deterrence posture and limit production of short-range delivery vehicles and tactical nuclear weapons. • Lift Pakistan’s veto on Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty negotiations and reduce or stop fissile material production. • Separate civilian and military nuclear facilities. • Sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty without waiting for India.

We proceed to evaluate these one by one. Shifting declaratory policy to “strategic deterrence” is a realistic possibility but as declaratory policies go it will lead to Pakistan eschewing the tactical rhetoric of TNWs. I call it tactical rhetoric because Pakistan uses nuclear weapons squarely as political weapons within the context of her domestic politics. India-Pakistan nuclear relationship has reached strategic stability. However, this strategic stability contributes nothing to increasing the military’s political power within Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan engages in the rhetoric of “full spectrum deterrence and TNWs”.

The second proposal of the report therefore is connected to the first one and in any case introduction of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons will not influence strategic stability too much. Short of declaratory policy, India can proceed with a basic proportionate tit-for-tat strategy in the event of TNW use by an adversary.The Stimson-Carnegie report is unclear on what it defines as ‘limiting short range delivery vehicles and tactical nuclear weapons’. One TNW is one too many.

The question of FMCT and CTBT are interesting but flow from the international collective action problem rather than just Pakistan’s veto. Pakistan is well within its sovereign right not to sign the FMCT and CTBT as long as it perceives lack of progress internationally on these issues. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are based on the principle of first use and continuing strategic parity with India.  Without these two principles Pakistan’s nuclear weapons provide no strategic stability to national security calculations in Pakistan and does little to calm Pakistani insecurities viz-a-viz India. Deterrence works on the logic of mutual risk more than any other variable. Certainty of risk is important otherwise it may lead to sub-optimal security-dilemma calculations by both adversaries. A relatively aggressive Pakistan being the politically revisionist and conventionally weaker power, first use is understandably an essential element of Pakistani nuclear strategy.

FMCT and CTBT are related to the larger question of the verifiability and infeasibility of global nuclear disarmament. The Iranian case is a good start and was only possible after the Obama administration invested all its political capital in the deal. Whether there is enough political capital in the world to replicate the Iranian case globally is a gargantuan research question and political puzzle. Separation of military and civilian nuclear reactors is well within Pakistan’s reach in the current scenario although it may not a make a big strategic difference.

Giving Pakistan the nuclear deal in the current state of affairs and political system in Pakistanwill make the military extremely popular to the local public and will strengthen them. It will consolidate General Raheel Shareef’s popularity. Therefore, the deal should only be given on the condition that no military coups or interference will be held in domestic politics for the coming years. Needless to say mainstreaming a Nuclear Pakistan now will be followed by mainstreaming atleast Israel and Iran sooner or later. Perhaps a Waltzian realist will argue for giving Pakistan a deal now-his argument that whoever wants to get a nuclear weapon irrespective of the political system should get one without consequences since according to him they are the most peaceful and war-deterring weapons ever invented; but I doubt a Waltzian realist would argue for mainstreaming an unstable nuclear power without the necessary evaluation of resultant balance of power outcomes.

Classical realists or strategists will have to look at how such a deal may impact the domestic politics of Pakistan and future strategic environment in addition to just balance of power and deterrence. Another aspect is that it will be a blow to the already weak constructivist normative argument of further non-proliferation since it seems that the NSG waiver which is actually a rare exception given only on the basis of no first use, moratorium on further testing and no record of nuclear proliferation is becoming a ‘norm’ itself (which in turn points to the larger problem of inconsistency in normative studies).

Both constructivists and Waltzian realists may be wrong on the question of the US-Pak deal according to me. The nuclear deal should be given to calm Pakistani insecurities but solely on the condition of domestic political and economic reform. Anyone expecting an accommodation of India’s case by demonstrating India’s history of good responsible behavior in this scenario is expecting too much. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have no utility without a first use policy.Pakistan’s conventional military power is much weaker relative to India. Nuclear weapons close that gap for the Pakistan military in addition to giving them political power. However, mainstreaming a nuclear Pakistan now is mainstreaming the political power of the military. Clandestine or IAEA inspected, Pakistani nuclear program already has enough weapons to deter India(only from full scale conventional war that is).

The big difference between Pakistan and Iran is that the former already has weapons. More weapons will make no change to the deterrence situation right now especially in light of the fact that India is not keen on nuclear arms competition. Infact, Pakistani military behaves aggressively only to get such deals out of the international community and more political power consequently. This deal is one such occasion. Therefore, the US and international community should resist and patiently ignore aggressive Pakistani policy in order to give strategic stability time to enforce itself without necessarily an incentive of a civil nuclear deal. That would amount to incentivizing frequent revisionist behavior and send a wrong signal to global nuclear and international politics.

Frequent linkage of nuclear policy and terrorism leads to dilution of Pakistani accountability and responsibility in the latter. Terrorism is a conventional strategic issue but by frequently linking terrorism with Pakistani nuclear threshold, India and International community have de facto legitimized that linkage. There is undoubtedly a limitation on India’s responses due to the Pakistani nuclear threshold but that doesn’t remotely justify state use of terrorism as a policy tool- the real cause of which lies in the fraught political relations of the two countries over the issue of Kashmir. Nuclear CBMs are marginal to the fundamental variable which is the politico-strategic competition between the two countries and realist logic of deterrence provides a better explanation of deterring war rather than the normative framework of frequent norm and confidence-building. Norms cannot replace strategic rationale based on evidence and history in international politics.According to me, Political and strategic relations govern nuclear politics rather than vice versa. The identification of the independent variable is critical in such broad based analysis. Existence of the current deterrence due to mutual risk is sufficient for Pakistan to stop using sub-conventional asymmetric warfare and proceed to a dialogue with India.

Terrorism and Nuclear weapons are being used for increasing the political power of the military leadership in turn inhibiting dialogue with India on important political issues. Democracy needs to take root in Pakistan for that to happen till then mutual risk will curb actual use of nuclear weapons by either party in any scenario. The calculation that stable deterrence does not exist is questionable since there hasn’t been a full scale conventional war since 1971 and is unlikely to occur in the future. State backed Terrorism is a political issue not a nuclear issue per se, well within the control of the Pakistani military establishment, with or without nuclear incentives.


[1] Toby Dalton and Michael Krepon, “A Normal Nuclear Pakistan’,, Accessed on October 26th 2015

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