The politics of nukes and why the U.S. can’t dump Pakistan

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In June 2009, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the former leader of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, was asked what might happen to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if that country’s government destabilized into chaos. This might set off a mad scramble for parts of Pakistan’s significant nuclear arsenal, possibly even causing the United States to execute contingency plans to seize the arms by force. “God willing,” Yazid told Al Jazeera about that possibility, “The nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of the Americans, and the mujahedeen would take them and use them against the Americans.” (Yazid died in a May 2010 U.S. drone strike).

Another nightmare scenario about Pakistan’s nukes: The border dispute between Pakistan and India might degenerate into a nuclear exchange. The rivalry between the two countries is widely considered to be the most combustible quarrel in the world among nuclear-armed nations. Experts suspect each side has between 60 and 120 nuclear weapons each. “An increasingly unstable Pakistan caught between Afghanistan and India might resort to nuclear weapons,” noted Tony Cordesman, of CSIS.

A nuclear exchange between the two countries, while catastrophic on its own, might also result in compromised security at one of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons depots, potentially leading to the loss of accountability for weapons or nuclear components that could end up in the hands of terrorists.

In yet another terrifying case, sympathetic elements of Pakistan’s intelligence service might simply hand nuclear elements, technology, or scientific know-how to Islamic militants. Past history suggests this nightmare is far from a fantasy. Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan traded nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. “A.Q. Khan not only helped to develop the Pakistani nuclear weapon, he also exported his designs around the world,” noted Laicie Olson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Pakistan’s insistence that Khan freelanced his transactions without government approval is about as comforting as the idea that nobody in the Pakistani national security establishment knew that Osama bin Laden was holed up in a large compound in Abbottabad for five years.

Any of those frightening circumstances theoretically increase the likelihood that nuclear weapons or technology might fall into the hands of Islamic militants bent on using it against the United States or its allies. Nuclear-based fear, in fact, is a cornerstone of Washington’s continued commitment to the government of Pakistan, and it is unlikely to change any time soon, regardless of Pakistan’s simultaneous prosecution and support of radical Islamic groups.

“Washington is definitely paranoid,” Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said in a call from Pakistan. “Ultimately, it boils down to the argument that it is a nuclear-armed state, so you can not just let it go.”

That means that Washington is unlikely to turn off the spigot on the yearly $1.5 billion in military and economic aid sent to Pakistan – aid that also guarantees some access to key Pakistani officials. Pakistan needs the money, and Washington needs that access.

Daryl Kimbal, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Pakistan’s bombs mean, “It is more difficult for the Untied States to go cold turkey on the military aid that Pakistan has been receiving for many years.”

The money, however, does not mean that the worst will not happen. “We don’t have the leverage to keep Pakistan from failing,” said Cordesman. “It is deeply divided society with an elite that has failed its citizens with respect to economic development.”

But don’t cut them off, Cordesman said. He called the financial aid an imperfect, probably inadequate, but still-necessary tool for keeping tabs on the Pakistanis. “It doesn’t do that much, but you have to be very careful,” he warned. “No real line of communication would make things far, far worse.”