Thursday June 08, 2023

Dialogue with the deaf

March 19, 2016

The recently concluded sixth session of the Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue in Washington demonstrates yet again that, at least when it comes to nuclear issues, we are engaged in a dialogue with the deaf.

Secretary of State John Kerry has once again expressed concerns over Pakistan’s nuclear programme, going beyond earlier demands to cap the programme by calling for a reduction of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. And once again, this demand was made without correlating it to similar action by India, in clear disregard for Pakistan’s need to maintain credible deterrence to ensure its security.

Kerry was obviously being disingenuous when he cited the example of the US and Soviet Russia reducing their nuclear weapons, which he asked Pakistan to emulate. Unlike the bilateral agreements between Washington and Moscow, he did not call for a reciprocal step from India. To ask Pakistan to unilaterally cap or reduce its nuclear capabilities, without a matching response from India, is either extremely naive or blatantly discriminatory.

Such a biased approach undermines the utility of this much touted strategic dialogue, as well as that of the separate forum for discussions on nuclear and security issues (the SSSNP talks), which have been held annually for several years. As a past participant, I know that in these sessions, Pakistani officials have repeatedly explained the rationale for Islamabad’s deterrence against India’s much larger strategic (nuclear) and conventional forces. Pakistan has also repeatedly highlighted India’s continual stock-piling of its nuclear weapons inventory; acquisition of short, medium and long-range ballistic missiles, including the highly destabilising Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs); efforts to acquire a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system; and more recently, according to credible reports, the development of thermo-nuclear weapons. None of this, however, elicits a response from the US. It is as if they are deaf to Pakistan’s arguments and in denial about these realities.

We should not be surprised by the US’s response. Clearly, the US has always had a discriminatory approach towards Pakistan’s nuclear programme. This discriminatory attitude has only hardened over the last decade, as the US has invested heavily in building up India, in order to counter China.

The US policy of a ‘de-hyphenated’ relationship with Pakistan and India is in reality a cover-up for the discriminatory approach of Washington towards the nuclear capabilities of Pakistan and India. We should recognise this reality and adjust our policies accordingly. There is nothing substantive to be gained by Pakistan in its dialogue with the US. It is time for us to refuse to provide opportunities to the US to berate Pakistan for alleged nuclear misdemeanours, while India continues to get a free pass.

Another opportunity for the US to castigate Pakistan is around the corner: the Nuclear Security Summit later this month in Washington. The event would be used through officially inspired media leaks to project the alleged dangers of “outsider and insider” threats to Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Recently, the State Department’s spokesman openly expressed concerns about the security of Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons, in response to a question from an Indian journalis. With that even the veneer of official endorsement of Islamabad’s nuclear safety and security measures has been swept away.

From Pakistan’s perspective, the safety and security of its strategic assets is a critical concern – not just because of the threat from terrorists and extremists, but more importantly because the US itself is trying to neutralise these assets. This concern is not new. In the 1980s, when Pakistan’s nuclear programme matured, there were reports that the US, Israel and India were planning to take control of or neutralise this capability. More recently, WikiLeaks and the disclosures by Edward Snowden of classified US documents have revealed the existence of such plans.

The recent book, ‘Confront and Conceal’ by David Sanger, mentions several times that one of the reasons that the US is continuing its military presence in Afghanistan is to “secure” Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists. But we cannot discount the possibility that this could actually be a ruse and an excuse. As Sanger writes, Secretary Kerry verbally pledged to the Pakistani leadership that he was prepared to “write in blood” that the US has no intention to go after Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, which did not amount to much “since Kerry had no authority to give such a statement”. Consequently, the official declaration made by the US was that it had “no design” on Pakistan’s weapons, which Sanger admits “meant nothing”.

We should also prepare to respond to another emerging US threat to the security of our nuclear assets: cyber warfare. It has already been used against Iran; 1000 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility were destroyed by the Stuxnet virus. According to a report in the New York Times on February 16, 2016, another more lethal cyber-attack was planned by the US military as a contingency plan against Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility, in the event that the nuclear talks with Iran failed. We in Pakistan have every reason to believe that we too can be the targets of such cyber-attacks and, therefore, need to take this threat very seriously.

So as we prepare to go to Washington again for another round of pointless and damaging engagement with the US, we need to seriously question the merit of such an acrimonious dialogue. At the very least, we must insist that the US should accept our legitimate right to have credible nuclear deterrence and stop demanding unilateral measures. Otherwise, this dialogue on nuclear issues with the deaf has run its course.

The writer is a former ambassador and former permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. The views expressed here are his own.