It has been more than 17 years since Pakistan detonated five nuclear warheads, in a tit-for-tat exchange with India that announced weapons of mass destruction were now part of the South Asian strategic theatre.
Since then, very little has been made public about the underlying philosophy of Pakistan’s programme. In fact, the sole stated “known” is that Pakistan has refused to embrace the no-first-strike commitment made by India, on the ground that Pakistan’s strategic weapons exist to discourage India from using its conventional military superiority to overwhelm it. That position was taken in 2001.
Until recently, the only other information in the public realm was gleaned from Pakistan’s ballistic missile tests. For example, its tests two years ago of short-range missiles revealed they would be used, in theory, against an Indian force that had seized a strategically important parcel of Pakistani territory. However, it has never been specified which parcels of territory would qualify under that inferred criterion.
Pakistan’s so-called “red lines” – events that would trigger a nuclear weapons launch – are unstated and the subject of conjecture. Security analysts have learnt of no more than three such scenarios and they are statements of the obvious for those familiar with recent history.
One involves the loss of the so-called Ravi-Chenab corridor, which includes the eastern metropolis of Lahore, parts of which are less than 10 kilometres from the border with India, and the satellite cities of Gujranwala and Sialkot. Another nuclear trigger would be the loss of half of Pakistan’s flight of US-made F-16 warplanes, because the technological edge they provide, on paper, guarantees it superiority in its own airspace. A third would be a blockade of Karachi and Bin Qasim ports, Pakistan’s only maritime logistical hub – but that red line is fast fading because of China’s construction of a third port at Gwadar, far from India’s maritime borders.
Against that backdrop, and that of annual upward revisions of estimates of the number of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads, there have been occasional outbursts of alarm in the US media, reflecting how little is actually known.
Subtly, that situation has begun to change. In June, a US-Pakistan working group issued a statement about their shared desire to ensure the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and steps Pakistan had taken to prevent even unintentional proliferation of its technology. Then, in August, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Centre proposed that Pakistan's strategic programme should be accepted and brought into the global non-proliferation scheme, in exchange for its commitment to a ceiling on the number of warheads it would produce and the range of its ballistic missile delivery platforms. This month, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius disclosed that Carnegie's proposals had, in fact, been adopted by the Obama administration and offered to Islamabad. The veracity of the disclosure was confirmed, by inference, in a statement issued after a meeting of Pakistan's civilian and military leadership held the next day and, the following day, by the White House.
But a deal is not imminent. Indeed, Pakistan’s leadership had appeared to turn down the offer outright. It said it would continue to work towards the development of a full-spectrum nuclear arsenal – one with the ability to launch weapons from the air, land and sea. India and Pakistan both have the air and land platforms, and India is now testing its first nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarine, which would give it an edge Pakistan could only blunt if its ally China agrees to transfer its “boomer” technology that allows subs to be armed with nuclear strike missiles. This is unlikely, since China has chosen not to deploy its own emerging fleet in the western Pacific.
Last Wednesday, however, 24 hours before prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with Barack Obama, Pakistan’s press, quoting the same unnamed official sources, reported the government’s position was markedly different to the long-perceived policy of zero compromise. It would not accept limits on the number of tactical battlefield warheads, it was reported. No mention was made of other types of devices, the strong hint being that a compromise could be reached on those, eventually, if India were prepared to make a matching commitment.
That is, by far, the biggest shift in – and disclosure of – Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine since the 1998 tests. Indeed, the US offer is a significant development in as far as it underlines its belief that Pakistan’s nuclear programme is not the leaky sieve it had been up to December 2003. That is when AQ Khan, the founder of the programme, was caught in the act of selling used uranium enrichment centrifuges to the Qaddafi regime in Libya, which disclosed the transaction as part of its short-lived rapprochement with the West. He also sold designs for uranium-enrichment centrifuges to Iran and North Korea.
It would appear Pakistan has taken the first steps towards joining the global non-proliferation regime. Nobody is suggesting a breakthrough will happen soon, but in a world increasingly characterised by regional conflicts, Pakistan’s willingness to negotiate is an encouraging sign that responsible attitudes are being adopted.
Tom Hussain is Asia-Pacific editor of The World Weekly
On Twitter: @tomthehack