November 5, 2007: With the recent chaotic events in Pakistan, one has to ask what sort of options the United States has. The state of emergency in Pakistan has derailed plans for democracy, and risked the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. This is one of the classic situations where American ideals and American interests may diverge big time.
The big issue in all of this is the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power, with as many as 95 nuclear warheads. Many of these designs are far more powerful than the first-generation devices the United States used in 1945, killing 140,000 people in two attacks. This is why stability and rationality in the Pakistani government is important. The problem is that stability may not be guaranteed. The in the 1990s, the Afghan Taliban regime was set up with the help of at least some elements of the Pakistani intelligence service. The other problem is Pakistan’s history of coups. These can be bad enough due to the uncertainty of where a new government stands. Now, add the fact that nukes are involved.
The U.S. has worked quietly with the Pakistani government, to improve the security of their nuclear weapons. The Pakistanis are not only concerned with Indian agents harming their nukes, but also the rather more remote possibility of criminals flitching components, or entire bombs, for sale on the international arms market. Several Islamic radical groups have standing offers of big bucks for functioning nuclear weapons. Islamic radicals, and most Moslems, consider Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to be the “Islamic nukes,” since Pakistan is the only Islamic nation to build nuclear weapons so far. Islamic terrorists openly talk about how they would eagerly use a nuclear weapon in a terror attack. Most Moslems realize this could have grave consequences for the Islamic world (as in a nuclear retaliation), so most Pakistanis want their nukes kept secure. But the rampant corruption makes it easier to penetrate any security system. Add to the mix a more volatile political situation, and you have high risk of loose nukes.
The U.S. has few good options here. A commando raid to spirit the nukes out of the country, only works in the movies. An air strike to destroy them would leave highly radioactive wreckage, and make many enemies for the U.S. in Pakistan. A deal to insert U.S. security personnel might work, given the highly mobile American forces just across the border in Afghanistan, and off the coast on amphibious ships. There is serious planning going on, but there is no sure cure for this situation.
If the nukes don’t make things bad enough, there is also the fact that Pakistan is the main supply route for coalition efforts in Afghanistan. A government in Pakistan that decided to oppose those efforts could cut off over 40,0000 coalition troops. This would be a huge military and political disaster, at least in terms of the enormous cost of flying in supplies that now come across the border on truck.
Here is where the conflict comes in. Pakistani President Perez Musharraf supports the global war on terror – and thus, the supply lines remain open. It also means Pakistan’s nukes will be in relatively rational hands. In essence, keeping Musharraf in power is in the interests of the coalition pursuing operations in Afghanistan. It means they have reasonably secure supply lines and air support. A new government in Pakistan might or might not agree to continue that support.
At the same time, Musharraf is not exactly popular in Pakistan. Much of this is due to the fact that promises to clear up corruption have not been kept. Support of American efforts in Afghanistan has also been unpopular in some quarters. In essence, there is a good chance that future elections could result in part of the new government being opposed to coalition efforts.
How delicate is this situation? In 2005, violent demonstrations in Uzbekistan resulted in international criticism of the Uzbek government, and the United States eventually had to pull out of bases in that country (used to ferry supplies into Afghanistan). This made America more dependent on Pakistan. Now, that route could be at some risk. In essence, the United States faces a very difficult dilemma. None of the courses of action are really very good ones – and all will require tradeoffs. – Harold C. Hutchison