By A.H. Nayyar
As Pakistan teeters on the brink of political, economic and social collapse, concerns are being raised over the security of its arsenal of over 150 nuclear weapons. At a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Reception in October 2022, US President Joe Biden is reported to have said, “And what I think is maybe one of the most dangerous nations in the world: Pakistan. Nuclear weapons without any cohesion.” These fears are not unfounded.
Pakistan’s army and police are targeted almost daily by the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan, a jihadist group fighting for their vision of a religious state. Underground cells of the Islamic State group, an Al-Qaeda successor, are also known to exist. Additionally, ethnic war rages in Balochistan province, which borders Iran and Afghanistan. The number of army fatalities has surpassed casualties from its four previous wars with India.
Added to these challenges is the wrenching economic crisis in Pakistan. The country’s external debt has now reached $125 billion, which is over half of its GDP. Annual debt servicing amounts to $22 billion, which clearly indicates an unsustainable state of affairs. Depleted foreign currency reserves force the country to seek loans from friendly nations, the IMF and the World Bank, if only to service older loans. Rampant inflation is crippling livelihoods, driving millions deeper into desperate poverty.
Pakistan’s misery was compounded last summer by the devastating rains and floods that destroyed infrastructure, rural homes and livestock, with catastrophic consequences for agriculture, which remains the core of the economy. The flood damage is estimated to be 10 percent of the country’s economic output. Decades of runaway military spending, poor governance, little investment in education and healthcare and an unproductive and undertaxed economy have left few options.
Some Pakistanis fear that in its weakened condition, the country may be coerced into giving up its nuclear arsenal. For a nation where most have been taught to view its nuclear weapons as the only remaining symbol of national pride, such a possibility is unbearable.
Nuclear national pride has come at a high cost. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons spending is estimated to be as much as $2 billion per year, if health and environmental costs are included. This represents a significant portion of its total military spending, which is approximately $10 billion. In 2022, the nearly six percent declared increase in military spending sharply contrasted with the 11 percent cut in spending on development.
Even though Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have failed to prove useful in addressing its actual national security concerns and are costly, the prime minister of Pakistan has found it necessary to assure the nation that there can be no compromise on the nuclear program.
Denuclearization for Pakistan would be challenging and fiercely opposed. It would require Pakistan to eliminate all its warheads and put its nuclear materials and related production facilities under the monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Pakistan may also need to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear state and join the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Additionally, Pakistan would require international security assurances regarding the perceived threat from a much more powerful India. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a denuclearized Pakistan would be even more concerned about the threat from its nuclear-armed neighbor and longstanding adversary.
Coercive denuclearization is unlikely to be effective. As demonstrated by the examples of Iran and North Korea, unwilling countries do not denuclearize easily. Iran is now believed to possess the technical capability to make nuclear weapons and is unlikely to roll it back in spite of excruciating sanctions. Similarly, North Korea has developed and tested nuclear devices despite isolation and increasingly severe sanctions. The successful denuclearization of South Africa and some former Soviet Republics was voluntary, as they chose to seek international support and acceptance by giving up nuclear weapons.
Every nuclear state’s weapons program is deeply concealed and heavily protected. The sizes and locations of their arsenals are not known with certainty by outsiders. There is no guarantee that a country under duress will honestly declare all its nuclear assets.
Rather than coercion, could inducements help Pakistan agree to denuclearize? One potential option is an international offer of a $200 billion economic lifeline to help the country overcome its current challenges in exchange for dismantling its nuclear complex. This would enable Pakistan to pay off its external debt, saving $22 billion a year for desperately needed development projects. Additionally, $50 billion of this lifeline fund would allow Pakistan to pay off all of its internal debt, while another $30 billion would go toward rebuilding flood-damaged infrastructure. With money in the bank, Pakistan would have the resources to invest in the future and be able to look forward with hope.
Would Pakistan accept inducement or prefer to endure coercion, if it comes? Or, would Pakistan agree to denuclearize now, knowing that the experienced human resources that had delivered its nuclear technology could be relied upon to regain it in the future if needed?
About the Author
Dr. Abdul Hameed Nayyar is a founding member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials and a retired physicist who has taught at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, as well as a member of APLN. This article is published in cooperation with the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). (www.apln.network).
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts, and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts, and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: The Ghauri–I (first on right) display at the IDEAS exhibition held in Karachi, mounted in its TEL launch mechanism. c. 2008. (Wikimedia)
This article was published in The Korea Times on 19 April 2023 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.