THE CIA. Drones. Raymond Davis. North Waziristan. F-16s. Many characters and controversies clutter the US-Pakistan relationship, but one thing causes anxiety above all else in Islamabad and Washington: our nuclear programme.

We think the US is plotting to seize our weapons; they fear the weapons will fall into the wrong hands. However, circumstances are more complicated than that.

Washington understands that Pakistan’s nuclear programme has little do with the US, and everything to do with India. It is also clear that disarmament is a regional challenge — any effort to reduce South Asian stockpiles can only be made once security concerns such as Kashmir have been tackled. Knowing this, the US has not articulated a coherent policy stance on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons beyond President Barack Obama’s general call for disarmament. As the Stimson Centre’s Michael Krepon points out in a new essay, the US has made choices — the US-India nuclear deal and collaboration with Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan — that leave it with little room to influence Pakistan’s nuclear choices.

Of course, de-prioritising the programme has not lessened Washington’s concerns about a nuclear Pakistan, especially after recent intelligence estimates of over 100 weapons in our arsenal. In his new book, Bruce Riedel outlines several scenarios that could lead to what he terms ‘Armageddon’. He describes how a ‘jihadist takeover’ — by an extremist faction of the army, or a Taliban-led militant group — would lead to increased production of nuclear weapons and potential deployment in the context of global jihad. He also argues that future Mumbai-style attacks could force India to take measures — unilateral strikes, naval blockades — that may spark a nuclear conflict.

Previously, in 2007, Lisa Curtis, another South Asia expert, described the links between Al Qaeda terrorists and retired Pakistani military and intelligence officials and nuclear scientists as “worrisome”.

It is the US’s preoccupation with such scenarios (that Riedel himself describes as “neither imminent nor inevitable”) that makes Pakistanis paranoid about American intentions for the nuclear programme. Interestingly, the Pakistani conviction that the US is hell-bent on seizing its nukes is baffling for many observers in Washington. In their opinion, history suggests that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are a peripheral concern — rather than a driving obsession — for the US.

They turn to history to illustrate this argument: in the 1980s and 1990s, the US first turned a cheek, and then simply walked away from the region, despite all indications that Pakistan was pursuing the bomb. If nuclear-armed Pakistan were Washington’s worst nightmare, they say, earlier intervention would have been likely. Moreover, when George W. Bush decided to engage with Pakistan’s nuclear programme, he focused on improved security, rather than seizure. According to 2007 reports, the US spent $100m helping Pakistan build fences, install sensors, develop nuclear material tracking systems, and train personnel to handle weapons. Notably, the Bush administration’s classified programme left Pakistan convinced that the US was trying to locate and document its nuclear facilities, and frustrated US government officials who never got the satisfaction of knowing whether their efforts had properly secured Pakistan’s nukes. As such, it exemplifies Pakistani and American attitudes — if not the political reality — on this issue.

The fact is, Washington’s position on Pakistan’s nuclear programme is not as black and white as many believe. There is growing support for a civilian nuclear deal akin to India’s. Analysts say such a deal could give Washington leverage in the relationship and provide a real incentive for Pakistan to sever ties with all militant groups.

The time is therefore ripe for Pakistan to clarify its own goals about the programme. We know that we will not disarm as long as India has access to fissile material. But how important is it for Pakistan to gain international recognition for its programme?

Are we willing to expand the arsenal infinitely, at the cost of all other social development? Will we risk rogue status to build more bombs? And if not jihadist takeovers, what do we consider ‘nightmare scenarios’ vis-à-vis the deployment of nuclear weapons?

Pakistan’s confusion is evident. For instance, requests for a civilian nuclear deal are attempts at legitimisation. But Pakistan is simultaneously leading the bloc against the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), a cornerstone of Obama’s nuclear disarmament strategy, on the basis that it concedes a strategic advantage to India. (The treaty calls for a cap on nuclear weapons, but does not stress the elimination of all fissile material stockpiles. Pakistan has more weapons than India, but India has access to far more fissile material that could be diverted into weapons production in the future.)

By blocking the FMCT, Pakistan ensures that it can continue to match India’s arsenal, but risks marginalisation on the world stage (most Conference of Disarmament participants support the FMCT). Seeming obstinacy in such matters is further complicated by Pakistan’s proliferation history and continuing transgressions in matters of nuclear security — last week, a Pakistani citizen appeared in a US court on charges of illegally exporting restricted equipment related to nuclear use to his home country.

With both these issues, Pakistan has options. It can support the FMCT, but demand international oversight of India’s fissile materials. Similarly, it can investigate Nadeem Akhtar’s alleged nuclear export racket, and hold implicated Pakistanis accountable. Such actions could earn international recognition for our programme, and make nukes a less explosive issue in US-Pakistan relations.

But such developments can only occur when we move out of the realm of paranoia and persecution, and treat the nuclear programme as one aspect of an integrated foreign policy and security agenda. Otherwise, if the world sees Pakistan as defiant and irresponsible on nuclear security and disarmament, it faces the threat of containment, and could one day find that its treasured assets are actually liabilities.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

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