Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers
By Mark Fitzpatrick
Routledge, 2014, 171 pp.
Since the earliest days following the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, policymakers in the United States and Europe have struggled to envision a realistic path by which Pakistan might achieve some measure of nuclear normalization. Perhaps unexpectedly, the turbulent U.S.-Pakistani relationship of the last several years and Pakistan’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal have revived rather than dampened interest in a normalization deal. The logic of such a deal hinges on the argument that bringing Pakistan into line with global nonproliferation norms could be a valuable inducement to shaping its behavior in the region.
Mark Fitzpatrick’s Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers is the latest serious attempt to grapple with the question of how the international community might deal with one of the most problematic nuclear-armed states. The majority of the book is dedicated to a carefully drawn analysis of the various risks of Pakistan’s nuclear enterprise. Only in the last dozen pages does Fitzpatrick connect these risks—in particular, the growing arsenals in India and Pakistan and the potential for an arms race on the subcontinent—to the larger argument that, despite the evident challenges, Pakistan should be offered a path to nuclear normalization. Ten years after Abdul Qadeer Khan’s proliferation network was shut down, he writes, “it is fair to ask how long Pakistan must pay the price for that failure.” This conclusion, which Fitzpatrick admits represents a revision of his own views on the subject, has drawn the most critical attention.
In making his argument, Fitzpatrick, a former acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation who now is with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, sensibly begins with a well-prioritized assessment of the actual risks of Pakistan’s nuclear program. He concludes that media assessments probably have overblown the likelihood of nuclear terrorism and that advances in Pakistan’s nuclear security and safety infrastructures have received far too little attention. Appropriately, he worries more about the developing arms race on the subcontinent, evidenced by Pakistan’s rapidly growing stockpiles of fissile material and India’s “inherent advantage” in facilities for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, which can be used in civilian or military nuclear programs; by India’s robust ballistic and cruise missile programs; by Pakistan’s introduction of tactical nuclear weapons; and by the development of sea-based nuclear deterrents.
Fitzpatrick’s chapter on Indian-Pakistani nuclear competition highlights the growing risks of misperception and command-and-control failures in an environment with new delivery mechanisms and intentionally ambiguous nuclear doctrines. His analysis suggests at a minimum that the next crisis on the subcontinent may escalate more quickly and unpredictably than those of the past.
Fitzpatrick concludes that, in order to deal with these growing dangers, Pakistan and the international community should “make mutually reinforcing adjustments” by which Islamabad adopts global nuclear norms in exchange for recognition as a “normal nuclear country.” Entirely apart from the details of terms and implementation, there is considerable value to rekindling debate about such a deal. Pakistanis in government, academia, and think tanks spend an enormous amount of time calculating the conditions under which their country might gain global legitimacy as a responsible nuclear state. A generation of nuclear strategists is coming of age in Pakistan convinced that the United States is committed to maintaining a discriminatory regime or, worse, rolling back Pakistan’s nuclear capability altogether.
That alone is reason enough for credible voices in the United States and Europe to signal that the international community seeks a path for bringing Pakistan in from the cold. At the very least, talking about normalization reinforces to Pakistan the major benchmarks that any deal would likely require in order to win international approval, namely, binding limitations on fissile material production and nuclear testing. Further, holding out the future prospect of full normalization provides incentives for Pakistan’s continued responsible participation in other areas of the global nuclear order, such as its acceptance of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on its civilian nuclear facilities and its contributions to the nuclear security summits.
Scholars who have previously considered the contours of a possible deal for Pakistan have shared two basic and mutually reinforcing assumptions. First, Pakistan’s proliferation record and history of using proxies against Afghanistan and India necessitate that any agreement include conditions more robust than the ones contained in the 2005 U.S.-Indian nuclear deal. Second, any deal would face daunting if not insurmountable challenges on account of the deep mistrust between Islamabad and Western capitals and the still-evolving strategic competition between Pakistan and India.
On the first point, Fitzpatrick does not stray far from conventional wisdom. He sets a high bar for a nuclear normalization deal, requiring Pakistan to agree to end fissile material production, drop its veto over initiating fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) negotiations in Geneva, sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and cease its support for groups that conduct terrorism. Tellingly, he does not discuss how this latter condition would be evaluated or verified.
On the second point—the political and strategic challenges of a deal—Fitzpatrick is frustratingly vague. Fundamental questions about the incentives for Pakistan and the United States and other nuclear-armed states are addressed casually or not at all. Ultimately, this reflects the book’s signature weakness: it fails to seriously acknowledge or address the reality that the incentives for Pakistan and the international community to pursue a nuclear normalization agreement are exceptionally weak.
With regard to Pakistan, there is no question that its political and military elites seek international recognition as stewards of a responsible nuclear state. It is less clear that those elites believe that the path to such recognition must involve effective restrictions on the size of Pakistan’s arsenal. India, operating under very different geopolitical conditions, negotiated an exceptionally favorable deal with the United States and members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that neither restricted its fissile material production nor bound it by treaty to a cessation of nuclear testing. Pakistan may well wager that it can hold out for a more lenient deal, even if that takes 10 years or more.
Indeed, there is virtually no evidence to suggest that Pakistan is ready to foreclose fissile material production in the short term, even if it withdraws its objection to the start of FMCT negotiations. Fitzpatrick suggests that Pakistan may expect that it can attain fissile material sufficiency by 2020—that is, stockpile enough material to generate a “minimum, credible deterrent” in perpetuity. Members of the Pakistani nuclear establishment, however, have been exceptionally careful not to signal a sufficiency threshold, and the competition that the book describes is unpredictable enough to make Pakistani planners nervous about making that assessment prematurely.
Pakistan may not yet have determined how many low-yield, plutonium-based tactical nuclear weapons it needs to assure its desired deterrence effects against Indian conventional force incursions or if those numbers may need to increase in the future. Alternately, if India moves forward aggressively in developing ballistic missile defense technologies, Pakistan may wish to build up an arsenal of low-yield nuclear cruise missiles and would want to have on hand the requisite plutonium stocks to do so.
Fitzpatrick argues that agreeing to an FMCT might appeal to Pakistan if the treaty locks in a level of relative parity between it and India in the size of their fissile material stockpiles. This seems unlikely. Particularly after the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, Pakistan has articulated its concern that even under FMCT strictures, India would be able to utilize unsafeguarded power-reactor plutonium for military purposes. It has also insisted repeatedly in talks in the Conference on Disarmament that an FMCT must address existing stockpiles, not simply future production. Although many outside observers believe that Pakistan already has exceeded the capabilities necessary to establish a credible deterrent against India, officials within the Pakistani nuclear establishment see few incentives to agree to a fissile material cutoff at this time and may believe that even stockpile parity with India would leave Pakistan at a disadvantage.
The second key reason that Pakistan faces weak incentives for a nuclear normalization deal with the international community is that, while remaining outside the bounds of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Islamabad already has gained the benefits of civilian nuclear cooperation through deals with China. Notably, China, with which Pakistan also has long-standing economic and military ties, has pledged to construct two large nuclear power plants in Karachi, and deals for additional plants may well follow. China joined the NSG in 2004 and has justified its provision of nuclear equipment to Pakistan by claiming that it was “grandfathered” by earlier Chinese-Pakistani agreements. This is a tendentious reading of NSG guidelines, but neither China nor Pakistan has faced significant diplomatic or economic consequences for the growing civilian energy partnership. Pakistan quite rightly assumes that, as a practical matter, it does not need an NSG exception to realize the fruits of civilian nuclear cooperation and is unlikely to give up much to the United States to attain what it has already secured from China.
As for the United States, there are a number of reasons to believe that the moment is not right for nuclear normalization with Pakistan. Over the last decade, two developments have colored the politics of such a decision. First, there is not a clear consensus about the value of the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal. Nonproliferation advocates continue to worry that the deal diluted the global nuclear order and the utility of the NPT. For their part, some advocates of the U.S.-Indian bilateral relationship are disappointed that the deal did not do more to bolster trade or widen security cooperation. In truth, it may be too soon to assess the long-term impact of the agreement. Nevertheless, the short-term political impact seems obvious: there is little appetite to expend the political capital necessary for another deal with a non-NPT state anytime soon.
Second, the years since 2005 have been tumultuous for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. As a result, the prevailing mood in the U.S. policy community is that inducements offered to Pakistan are fundamentally ineffective in shaping Pakistan’s behavior except in highly specific circumstances. The kinds of conditions that the U.S. Congress would likely want to see as part of a nuclear normalization deal—for example, long-overdue and targeted actions against extremist groups operating inside and outside of Pakistan—have proven over the last decade to be politically toxic to the bilateral relationship, difficult to verify, and easily evaded. Most U.S. policymakers have come to believe that if Pakistan wants to be recognized as a “normal” country, it must ultimately deal with its internal threats under its own initiative and in response to its own incentives, not under inducements tied to nuclear cooperation or conditional financial assistance.
Where does all of this leave the prospects for a normalization deal? If Fitzpatrick is right and the greatest risks of Pakistan’s nuclear program are related to its growing arsenal and its arms race with India, then an agreement on a fissile material cutoff should be the minimum baseline condition required by the international community. At least in the near term, Pakistan is unlikely to agree even to this minimal condition, as evidenced by the hardening of its stance on FMCT negotiations. A deal might be viable if the United States had something compelling to offer, but it does not. China is already providing nuclear cooperation outside the scope of the NPT, and the nonmaterial benefits of international recognition of Pakistan’s nuclear status are too vague and fleeting to affect its strategic calculations at this time.
Add India’s incentives to the mix, and the prospects for a deal of the kind Fitzpatrick proposes wane even further. Pakistan has made it clear that it will not agree to a fissile material cutoff or sign the CTBT without agreement by India to do the same. New Delhi has shown little enthusiasm for furthering Pakistan’s quest for nuclear legitimacy and must consider its strategic competition with China in any decision to permanently halt fissile material production or testing. Having already received an NSG exception, India is not inclined to support any carve-outs for Pakistan in the international nuclear regime.
In short, Fitzpatrick’s proposal of a nuclear normalization deal for Pakistan is disappointingly unrealistic. Although his analysis is provocative, a more rigorous examination of the policy incentives—and the politics—would have pointed to the conclusion that a deal that could provide tangible benefits to Pakistan and the West almost certainly is unworkable, at least for now. Where Fitzpatrick gets it right is in highlighting the risks that continue to accrue from the strategic competition on the subcontinent.
His book stands as a careful corrective to those who have focused on nuclear terrorism in Pakistan while downplaying the troubling implications of an accelerating arms race in South Asia. Until Pakistan is satisfied with the credibility of its deterrent against India—something that will happen only when it begins to re-evaluate its assumptions about internal and external threats—deals that offer little more than a generalized promise of nuclear recognition will continue to fall short.
Joshua T. White is deputy director for the South Asia program at the Stimson Center. He served as senior adviser for Asian and Pacific security affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2012 to 2013.
1. The Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 conditioned India’s exemption from the requirements of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act on, among other conditions, India making progress toward concluding an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, India creating a plan to separate its civilian nuclear facilities from military ones, India’s support for a fissile material cutoff treaty and efforts to halt the spread of sensitive nuclear technology, and consensus approval of the final agreement by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India and the United States reached an agreement on the final text of the civilian nuclear deal in July 2007, and it was approved by Congress in the fall of 2008. See Paul K. Kerr, “U.S. Nuclear Cooperation With India: Issues for Congress,” CRS Report for Congress, RL33016, June 26, 2012.
2. See Zia Mian and A.H. Nayyar, “Playing the Nuclear Game: Pakistan and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty,” Arms Control Today, April 2010.