Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

America and Pakistan: Uncertain Nuclear Security Cooperation

Posted by K.E. White on June 26, 2009

The Center for American Progress has just released this survey on Nuclear Security Ties between the United States and Pakistan from 2000-2009. The main message seems to be, ‘Thumbs up Obamaland!’ But the survey gives no evaluation of the administration’s–admittedly clandestine–policies, nor does it offer any fresh insights into securing Pakistani nuclear materials. (Correction: It does recommend against “well-publicized” questioning of Pakistan’s ability to secure its nuclear materials)

The most pertinent part of the report comes in its concluding paragraphs:

In any event, cooperation between the two countries on enhancing the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal appears to continue. There are recent reports that secret talks took place in May 2009 between Energy and State Department officials and their Pakistani counterparts on expanding cooperation. The United States has reportedly continued to provide additional training and detection technology for Pakistani ports, airports, and border crossings. Major initiatives considered in recent talks reportedly include shipment of Pakistani highly enriched uranium fuel to the United States for disposal and a plan to destroy risky radioactive materials. Pakistan, however, denies the talks have occurred. Pakistan has also reportedly requested assistance with redirection programs for retired scientists. The United States was apparently noncommittal.

President Obama has said that “we have confidence that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe.” The United States has a fundamental national security interest in ensuring that this remains the case, and it should seek to sustain its cooperation with Pakistan. Achieving this objective will require the United States to avoid aggressive and well-publicized rhetoric questioning the competence of the Pakistani military to manage its own nuclear assets, and continued behind-the-scenes negotiations with military and civilian leaders in Pakistan to share technology and advice consistent with U.S. law and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.

But the survey gives a solid history of nuclear security ties between Pakistan and the United States. This makes it an excellent compliment to this May 2009 Stratfor report: the report fleshes out the tensions that define this area of cooperation; details Pakistan’s nuclear command-and-control system; and, finally, discusses how nuclear security fits into other US objectives in the region:

The view within the U.S. intelligence community is that there is simply no sound way to independently assess the workings of the systems with any great certainty. Obviously, for reasons of national security and sovereignty, the Pakistanis will try to keep the system as opaque as possible. This means Washington has to rely on what it is hearing from Islamabad about control over its nuclear facilities, and on unilaterally obtaining information from third-party intelligence sources and intelligence-sharing with other countries, such as India.

Given the history of security concerns in Pakistan and the problematic relationship between the Bush administration and the Musharraf regime in the context of the jihadist war, Washington has a significant trust issue with Islamabad. The issue is not that Islamabad is providing false assurances; rather, it has to do with the fluidity of the situation in a country in which the government itself cannot be completely certain that all its moving parts are in synch. Even if the reality is that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities are secure from any intrusion by a nonstate actor, one cannot be sure that this is the case.

The United States works very closely with India on the issue of Pakistan’s nuclear security. New Delhi is a key source of intelligence on the status of that security, and a good — albeit imperfect — measure of valid concern is the degree to which India is worried about it, since it stands the greatest risk of being targeted by Pakistan-based nukes. And although India continues to underscore the threat it faces from Pakistan-based militants, it remains comfortable with Pakistan’s nuclear command-and-control infrastructure. This would explain to a considerable degree the current U.S. comfort level. In the past week, following media coverage of Pakistan’s nuclear security, several senior U.S. officials — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus — all said Islamabad’s nuclear sites were secure.

The public discourse over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is part of an issue much wider than simply the country’s nuclear security or the Taliban threat to Islamabad. The Obama administration is in the process of downgrading expectations about the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. There is a growing realization within the White House that the counterinsurgency successes in Iraq are unlikely to be replicated in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Therefore, the emerging objective in southwest Asia is not to defeat the Taliban, but to neutralize al Qaeda prime and help Pakistan ensure that its nuclear sites remain secure. The Obama administration’s strategy to deal with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to be able to demonstrate success on these two fronts, which are the most immediate of concerns regarding U.S. national security.

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