May 10, 2009

Nuclear Football

Almost no good news is coming out of Pakistan, whatever the perspective is.

From America, Pakistan appears to be burning to the ground, on the verge of becoming an Islamic caliphate, ready to spill its nuclear content to al Qaeda. From Pakistan, American concerns are over-hyped to justify extensive foreign interference, be it orders to a democratic government, conditional economic aid, or military incursion. Neighboring Afghanistan and India anxiously monitor Pakistan’s status, hoping to siphon blame off themselves.

Yet in spite of these daunting challenges and threats, a more potent standoff exists. With alarm for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal rising by the day, the idea that America is seeking to remove Pakistan’s stockpile is proportionately gaining traction. This theory is now being labeled in Pakistan as the real end game for America.

Both states predictably deny such a possibility, but the history of Pakistan’s nuclear program is well documented. America opposed the program from the start, using it as an excuse to cut off aid after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Nuclear exchanges between China and Pakistan have agitated the Pentagon. It’s also common knowledge that America knows the locations of Pakistan’s weapons facilities, implying that America could swoop warheads out as a last resort.

Exacerbating the situation are reports that American and Pakistani military officials have discussed exit strategies for securing and transporting nuclear weapons and for discarding loose material in America. Such measures are precautionary and proper for military contingency, but Pakistan is a guerrilla war and suffers politically as a result of these rumors.

Conflict over Pakistan's nuclear weapons runs deeper still. Active Indian lobbing has affected the process of American aid bills to Pakistan; India is perceived as trying to take advantage of America’s distrust for Pakistan. This suspicion was created specifically by America’s demand for access to rogue nuclear proliferator Dr. Khan, President Obama’s sudden silence on Kashmir, and tacit acceptance for India’s nuclear program.

Speculation that America wants to “de-fang Pakistan’s nuclear option,” as one Dawn columnist put it, is destructive to both countries and becoming widespread.

In Pakistan, the thought that it can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons while India can be is disrespectful and denigrating. Nuclear weapons are a national interest, not limited to a particular group. Few Pakistanis would agree to give up nuclear weapons and so the threat of losing them effects every spectrum of society: those in poverty, the middle class, the intelligentsia, the elite, the government, and the army.

There is no advantage in making them all feel insecure.

President Obama has repeatedly complained that Pakistan’s government is failing to deliver basic services to its people, leading to a lack of public support. Obama is highly concerned, as he should be in guerrilla warfare, about negative sentiment affecting Pakistani’s ability to fight the Taliban. Why then isn’t he as concerned with the political effects of his own administration?

Contrary to American news organizations, Obama’s plans have been derided in Pakistan even though he enjoyed high popularity upon assuming office. His “AfPak” strategy was generally panned, the term “AfPak” itself has drawn criticism, and editorials in the press have expressed surprise that he’s done the impossible - making the Pakistani people feel sorry for president Asif Zardari by jerking him around in public.

Obama also appears to have lost Nawaz Sharif, who told reporters, “I have no intention to come into power with the support of the US.”

But these problems pale in comparison to the roughshod wrestling over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and the rumors damage to America’s credibility. America appears self-serving in combating the Taliban and al Qaeda, but their existential threat to Pakistan has managed to temper anger over America’s meddling. Pakistan has come to view the war as its own in addition to America’s.

The theory of neutralizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons enjoys no such protection. It's reverse terrorism, spreading fear to force Pakistan into combating the Taliban. It's imperialist behavior, a naked power grab, a blatant weakening of Pakistan, a victory for its rival India, having little to do with al Qaeda. America opposed the weapons long before al Qaeda was a threat and may oppose them even if al Qaeda is defeated and the Taliban is expunged from the tribal areas.

This issue goes beyond nuclear weapons in terrorist’s hands. Reality may be otherwise, but America is perceived as fundamentally opposing Pakistan’s nuclear program, which will win not one heart or mind.

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