That Pakistan declined to send troops to Yemen when requested by Saudi Arabia is a good indicator of what might happen should Saudi Arabia do the same in asking for nuclear weapons
In many ways, if the outlook for Pakistan were a weather report, the forecast is much brighter than it was even a year ago. The army’s offensive against the Taliban and terrorists of most stripes has yielded excellent results so far. Nawaz Sharif’s government has made some headway in righting the economic ship of state. China’s decision to commit nearly $ 50 billion to commission “the new Silk Road” and enhance the port of Gwadar augurs well. And India’s new prime minister appears conducive to relieving the decades old rivalry and conflict with Pakistan.
The Asian Development Bank confirms these positive economic trends citing “revival in construction and steady expansion in manufacturing and services edged up growth in gross domestic product (GDP) underpinned by low international oil prices and the expected uptick in economic growth in advanced economies. However, progress remains slow in a challenging political and security environment.”
Yet, how solid is this progress and, pressing the analogy, what storm clouds persist? Is the outlook as rosy as it appears or is a less happy forecast in the offing? Given the crises that persist from Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf west to the Mediterranean and north to Ukraine and Europe, can the world relax its gaze on the subcontinent at least for the time being?
First, geo-strategically, one canard must be dismissed out of hand. The media, most recently in Israel, has been hypothesising that Islamic State (IS) and al Qaeda are amassing funds to buy the ‘bomb’. This reinforces, wrongly in this writer’s view, the fear that if Iran were to go nuclear, Pakistan would provide (meaning sell) nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. And that fear itself arose from the obsession during the early years of George W Bush’s administration that somehow Pakistani nuclear weapons were insecure and could fall into the hands of terrorists, especially the Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP).
Ironically, while Pakistan possesses a tiny fraction of nuclear weapons compared to the US, its safety record is better. And it turned out that even in open literature (which inconceivably the US intelligence community failed to read even when published by a US national laboratory), Pakistan’s nuclear security was documented to be of a high level by a very credible Pakistani author. That Pakistan declined to send troops to Yemen when requested by Saudi Arabia is a good indicator of what might happen should Saudi Arabia do the same in asking for nuclear weapons. So, in terms of transfer and sale, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is not the major worry many have.
What is, however, potentially dangerous relates to the Pakistani development of short-range tactical nuclear weapons, including sea-based systems. The theory is that to deter and if necessary halt a no notice, a conventional Indian military attack envisaged under the Cold Start doctrine, Pakistan’s tactical weapons are seen as essential. India’s response with its “no first use policy” is that first use will result in devastating retaliation presumably against Pakistan’s population centres in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Hence, one conclusion is that effort now must be intensified to ensure that war in the subcontinent is prevented. Nuclear related talks are one means for that to happen.
Second, a series of governments have not halted the radicalisation of the public by Islamic extremists. With a population broaching 200 million and much of that 25 and younger with little expectations of full employment and the benefits of a successful life, this is potentially, cataclysmically explosive. Third, the positive trends in the economy have been largely buoyed by low oil prices. When oil prices rise, as they will, reserves will be depleted, inflation will return and Pakistan will be headed back to where it once was. Energy generation as well as shortages in water and food remains fragile. Fourth, tensions between the government and the army have the prospect of becoming acute again. While no hard evidence of a coup or movement against civilian politicians of most parties exists, an undercurrent of concern is present.
Fifth, how Afghanistan fares directly affects Pakistan. Despite the overt willingness of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to improve relations, the Taliban resurgence can of course derail any such efforts. If the government is successful and the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) puts that very much in question, that obviously will be positive. However, success is by no means guaranteed, which Pakistan fully understands.
Last, will the current government be able to impose real reforms to deal with these issues, from collecting taxes to moving away from the feudal system that has dominated Pakistan for so long and reversing radicalisation? Or will it stall? On these questions the future outlook for Pakistan rests.
The writer is chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and senior advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out this fall, is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of an Archduke a Century Ago Still Menaces Peace Today