The United States knows far too little about the uncertain security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and U.S. intelligence has mounted a huge secret effort to prevent terrorists from obtaining that country’s nuclear weapons or materials, The Washington Post reported Monday.
But as the capital cognoscenti ponder the implications of The Post’s stunning scoop, a second nightmare about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has gone unmentioned. Namely, the prospect that an accidental nuclear war could be triggered between India and Pakistan, because the bucolic borderland of Kashmir remains as hostile as ever. Make no mistake: It could happen, as a concerned former Pakistani general detailed for me years ago.
Meanwhile, it is a perverse sign of our times that the bad news reported by The Post nevertheless may be good news for those who fear such an accidental war. We’ll tie it all together in a minute.
First, the newspaper report, based on documents Snowden provided, outlined U.S. concerns about counterterrorism “intelligence gaps” inside Pakistan. U.S. intelligence fears that Islamist militants may have penetrated Pakistani intelligence and military and may be able to “launch an insider attack or smuggle out nuclear material.” The Post reported that nuclear-security concerns “are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else.”
U.S. intelligence remains largely in the dark about the locations of Pakistan’s nuclear labs, production and storage facilities — and how and when materials are moved from place to place. The Post quoted a familiar expert — Pakistan’s retired Brig. Gen. Feroz Khan, a former director of arms control and disarmament now living in the United States — on just what U.S. intelligence knows and, mainly, doesn’t know.
“Nobody knows how they truly do it,” Khan was quoted. “Vehicles move in a stealthy manner and move with security. But it’s not clear whether the cores are moved to the warheads or the warheads are moved to the core locations.”
That took me back to my first talk with the same Gen. Khan, in 2002, while I was researching a book and a television documentary about poorly secured “loose nukes” and the possibility of accidental nuclear war. Back then, India and Pakistan seemed on the verge of yet another war over Kashmir — much as they do today. Indeed, The Post reported that intelligence documents show officials’ concern that extremists in Pakistan could seize nuclear materials or even “trigger a war with neighboring India.”
Back in 2002, Khan was concerned that in a war between nuclear neighbors India and Pakistan — where one side has just minutes to decide to retaliate in a perceived nuclear strike — even a careful general could inadvertently start a nuclear war.
“Once the conventional war breaks out, the fog of war sets in,” Khan told me then. “And during war, you have deceptions. You have misperceptions. You have communications breakdowns.”
He outlined several scenarios leading to unintentional nuclear war. Among them: India launches a missile that Pakistan knows is “nuclear-capable” — yet it carries a non-nuclear warhead. But a Pakistani general, told it’s an incoming nuclear missile, launches his nukes. In each case, the country first hit with a nuclear strike retaliates tenfold, igniting a massive nuclear war.
Here’s a frightening coincidence: India and Pakistan are still at it over Kashmir. In 2013, several sporadic sniping incidents — believed started by militants who prefer war to peace — led to deaths on both sides. The most recent was just last month.
Now we have reached our perverse-but-true news linkage. George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted in an interview that The Post’s bad-news scoop has produced one good-news benefit.
“While it is of course bad news that we don’t know where Pakistan’s nuclear stuff is, it also turns out to be good news when it comes to concerns of accidental nuclear war,” Perkovich said. “The good news is that since we don’t know where Pakistan’s nuclear stuff is, that means India can’t know precisely what to target either.
“So the old concern that a nuclear nation that is under attack must use them or lose them just isn’t as great in this case as we always assumed it was.”
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard.