Current General Studies Magazine: "Nuclear tango in Afghan Shadow" November 2015

Current General Studies Magazine (November 2015)

General Studies - II "International Relations Based Article" (Nuclear tango in Afghan Shadow)

As Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visits the U.S., it is clear that the U.S. and Pakistan are looking for some kind of a ‘nuclear deal’ and that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan once again provides the strategic justification. There is a sense of déjà vu, this exercise is reminiscent of the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The outcome then proved to be counterproductive in the long run: by the time Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and the U.S. re-imposed nuclear sanctions in 1990, Pakistan was already in possession of nuclear weapons, U.S.-Pakistan relations had gone into a downward spiral and, within Pakistan, the jihadi -sectarian virus was taking root.

The first indication that Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions had again entered U.S.’s Afghan calculus was the Washington Post article (on October 6) by David Ignatius, who was writing about the takeover of Kunduz town in northern Afghanistan following a audacious attack by the Taliban. It was there that Mr. Ignatius suggested a nuclear deal with Pakistan, similar, though not identical to the 2008 India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement, could emerge as a “diplomatic blockbuster” when Mr. Sharif visited Washington. Predictably, the White House provided an ambiguous response, neither confirming nor denying the report.

On October 15, David Sanger, another veteran journalist at the New York Times , also wrote along similar lines about a possible deal which would put constraints on Pakistan’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal. If so, he said this would reflect a considerable broadening of U.S.-Pakistan nuclear talks whic had so far been restricted to ensuring security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

This idea is not new. Fuelled by Pakistan’s unhappiness about the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s (NSG) exceptional waiver given to India in 2008, a number of Western non-proliferation experts had been suggesting that one way to persuade Pakistan to stop going ahead with Tactical Nuclear Weapons would be to offer it a similar deal. They felt such a deal would also address the country’s obsession with having ‘parity’ with India. These experts have also been keen purveyors of the ‘South Asia as a nuclear flashpoint’ hypothesis.

In 2014, Mark Fitzpatrick, earlier with U.S. State Department and now with International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London based think tank, came out with a report titled “Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers”. A couple of months ago, Michael Krepon (Stimson Centre) and Toby Dalton (Carnegie Endowment) co-authored a paper, “A Normal Nuclear Pakistan”. The authors stated that Pakistan’s objective is a ‘civilian nuclear cooperation deal’ which would require an NSG waiver. Since India’s entry into the NSG is likely to be blocked by China, one way out would be to integrate Pakistan too into the international non-proliferation architecture and ‘put behind’ its murky proliferation past.

A second rationale is that with the introduction of short-range nuclear capable missiles (the 60-km range Nasr), described as a Tactical Nuclear Weapon, Pakistan has lowered the nuclear threshold and shifted from ‘minimum credible deterrence’ to ‘full spectrum deterrence’. Mr. Krepon and Mr. Dalton suggested that in return for such a deal, Islamabad should accept certain constraints. It should eschew Tactical Nuclear Weapons, shift back to strategic deterrence, maintain its arsenal in ‘recessed’ (de-alerted) mode, sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) without waiting for India to do the same, and stop blocking the negotiations in Geneva on an Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).

There had been few takers for the idea. Pakistan indicated that it would be unwilling to accept any restrictions on its nuclear posture and underlined the need for ‘full spectrum deterrence’.

Unrealistic demand for parity

The factors that contributed to the U.S.-India deal were qualitatively different. The key drivers included: a growing strategic convergence, commercial and economic interests, India’s clean track-record on non-proliferation, a stable democratic polity and the need for nuclear power as a clean energy resource to meet India’s growing energy demands.

These factors did not hold in Pakistan’s case and in any event, China had addressed Pakistan’s nuclear power demands by repeatedly assuring Pakistan of continuing its nuclear cooperation. At last count, China is building Chashma III and IV (2x340 MW) and KANUPP II and III (2x1000 MW), with options to build another five, all under concessional financing.

However, later, the Afghanistan factor entered the equation. With just another fifteen months left for the Obama administration to complete its term, the goal of a clean and managed exit for the U.S. troops seemed difficult to manage. The peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban had stalled. President Ashraf Ghani was no longer convinced that Pakistan was serious about delivering on the talks with the Taliban. Suicide bombings and Taliban attacks had gone up with the Kunduz attack being a rude wake-up call. Within the U.S., there was a growing feeling that a premature U.S. exit would rapidly undo the gains that had been made in Afghanistan; this has already forced President Obama to postpone the departure of 5500 U.S. troops from 2015-end to 2016-end. Pakistan had become indispensable and needed to be persuaded to be cooperative; but the question was, ‘How’?

Peter Lavoy, who had dealt with South Asia in the Department of Defence (DoD) and in National Intelligence Council earlier, had taken over as Senior Director in the National Security Council (NSC). He was joined by Joshua White, formerly with the Stimson Centre. Both had spent many years working on non-proliferation issues and given their backgrounds, it is hardly surprising that a nuclear deal with Pakistan became a seductive option.

A similar logic had driven U.S. policy earlier during the Reagan years with disastrous consequences. Military and economic assistance to Pakistan had been severely curtailed in 1979 in view of disclosures about Pakistan’s clandestine uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. General Zia-ul-Haq’s military takeover and former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution had added to the disenchantment. However, with President Reagan’s election, Pakistan emerged as the front line state in U.S.’s covert war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Nuclear sanctions were waived in ‘national interest’; instead, a six year special assistance package of $3.2 billion was announced in 1981.

Mistakes under Reagan and Bush

Evidence continued to mount about Pakistan accelerating its clandestine nuclear activities as it proceeded apace with its enrichment programme. In 1984, three Pakistani nationals were indicted in U.S. for illegally exporting nuclear related materials and equipments. Similar incidents were reported from Germany and Switzerland. The Solarz Amendment, championed by U.S. Congressman Stephen Solarz, kicked in to block assistance but the Reagan administration, obsessed with Afghanistan, overlooked Pakistan’s nuclear activities and provided yet another waiver. Faced with growing pressure from the non-proliferation lobby, the Pressler Amendment, sponsored by Senator Larry Pressler, was adopted in 1985 under which the U.S. President certified annually to the Congress that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear device and that the continued economic and military assistance was necessary in the ‘national interest’.

In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and in 1990, faced with definitive CIA reports about Pakistan have crossed all nuclear red lines, President George Bush (Sr.) was unable to provide the certification required under the Pressler Amendment, ending U.S. economic and military assistance. But under the Afghan shadow, the U.S. willingness to overlook Pakistan’s clandestine activities and Dr. A.Q. Khan’s ‘nuclear Wal-Mart’ enabled Pakistan to become a nuclear weapon state.

After 9/11, Pakistan again emerged as a front line state, this time as part of the ‘global war on terror’. Nevertheless, by 2009, there was growing scepticism in the U.S. about Pakistan’s intentions. All terror attacks, in the West or elsewhere, whether successful or thwarted, were traced back to Pakistani madrassa s and training camps; Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad just reinforced U.S. misgivings.

However, Pakistan had received economic and military assistance amounting to $19 billion since 2002, with an additional $13 billion as reimbursements from the Coalition Support Fund for allowing transit to Afghanistan and use of its ports and airports for coalition troops and equipment transfers. However, this has not helped Mr. Obama to manage a responsible exit from Afghanistan. The investment in a National Unity Government, led by President Ghani in Kabul, has failed to deliver despite Mr. Ghani’s overtures to Pakistan which have damaged him domestically.

The U.S.-Pakistan nuclear tango in the 1980s took place during the Cold War. Today, India-U.S. relations are qualitatively different and successive leaders in both countries have contributed to realising the potential of the newfound strategic partnership. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone out of his way to build a personal rapport with President Obama, reflected in the frequent summit-level interactions. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s personal involvement in the India-U.S. nuclear deal makes him a trusted figure in the Washington circles. However, recent U.S. moves in Afghanistan, like promoting peace talks with the Taliban on any terms, pushing the Afghan government towards unrealistic concessions and turning a blind eye to Pakistan Army’s continued policy of distinguishing between ‘good terrorists’ and ‘bad terrorists’, have created serious doubts about the strength of U.S.-India engagement. Practically, the Obama administration will be unable to deliver what Pakistan wants in the limited time that it has (the Indian deal took more than three years, 2005-08, to reach fruition) but this short-sighted policy will certainly have an adverse impact on India-U.S. relations in the long term. As the French have say: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same).

After the Taliban’s Kunduz takeover, U.S. postponed troop withdrawal by a year; it was clear that any successful pullout and transition has to involve Islamabad’s complete cooperation The discussions over a possible U.S.-Pak. nuclear deal reminds us of the 1980s, when the Reagan administration deliberately overlooked Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear activities. Notwithstanding its current troubles in Afghanistan, Washington should steer clear of repeating past mistakes.

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