Raheel Sharif heads to Washington, is a tactical nuke deal possible?

A proposed nuclear deal aims to stop Pakistan from building small tactical nuclear weapons that could fall into terrorist hands

Pakistan Army General Raheel Sharif

New Delhi
Outside the spotlight on the terrorist carnage in Paris on Friday night, and the on-going G20 summit in Turkey, Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, is on an unusually interesting five-day visit to the US, starting Sunday. Being discussed, say insiders, is a proposed nuclear deal to stop Pakistan from building an arsenal of small “tactical nuclear weapons” (TNWs) that could easily fall into terrorist hands; and a fresh impetus to dialogue with the Taliban.

The New York Times (NYT) editorial board, in a piece on November 7 entitled “The Pakistan Nuclear Nightmare”, revealed that President Barack Obama’s administration was offering Pakistan a nuclear deal. While not as expansive as the US-India deal, Washington would effectively end Pakistan’s nuclear pariah status by supporting its membership of the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). In return Islamabad would stop developing TNWs and long-range missiles, and sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Both Washington and New Delhi worry deeply about TNWs in Pakistani hands. Since these are small, battlefield weapons with ranges as short as 60-100 km, they are deployed with military units close to the border. That makes them vulnerable to being snatched by terrorists, or unauthorised launch by a rogue military commander.

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President Obama reportedly pressed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hard when they met at the White House on October 22, but to no avail, reports NYT. Two days before that meeting, Pakistan publicly announced that TNWs were essential for its national security, given India’s threatening “cold start” doctrine.

India’s “cold start” doctrine, or “proactive strategy” as some call it, is a contingency military plan for punishing unacceptable Pakistani provocations - such as mass-casualty terrorist strikes in India - by launching multiple swift, shallow offensives into that country with overwhelming forces, led by tanks and air strikes. Pakistani planners, aware they would be overwhelmed, plan to deploy TNWs along the border to threaten India with an early nuclear riposte.

On October 20, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary alleged in Washington that India had “created a space for war”, and that Pakistan’s “low-yield tactical weapons” would make it difficult for India to launch a war without inevitably breaching the nuclear threshold.

“Our nuclear programme is one dimensional: stopping Indian aggression before it happens. It is not for starting war. It is for deterrence,” said Chaudhary, becoming his country’s first serving official to acknowledge and explain Pakistan’s TNWs.

While this defused American pressure on Nawaz Sharif, it did little to ease anyone else’s concerns. Since India’s nuclear doctrine promises to respond to any Pakistani use of nuclear weapons with massive retaliation, a successful terrorist strike on India promises to escalate inexorably through an Indian “cold start” reprisal, to a Pakistani TNW response, to a full-blown nuclear holocaust.

For that reason, say analysts, Washington accepted Raheel Sharif’s long-pending request for meetings in Washington. Instead of speaking to Nawaz, Washington will be speaking this week to the Sharif who actually calls the shots on nuclear matters in Pakistan.

General Sharif, however, has already fired the first shot in this engagement. On Saturday, NYT published a Pakistani rebuttal of the November 8 editorial, declaring that it “portrayed Pakistan as a country irresponsibly building its nuclear arsenal”. It charged that India first introduced nuclear weapons in South Asia, and was growing its arsenal, testing longer-range missiles and “investing in a nuclear triad that inevitably requires a larger (Pakistani) nuclear arsenal.”

The pugnacious Pakistani statement says that India “propounds war-fighting doctrines while being ascendant as one of the world’s largest importer of military hardware.” Declaring that Pakistan has “for decades offered proposals to India for nuclear restraint,” it accuses New Delhi of never having offered a “constructive response.”  This could mean either that Pakistan has no “give” at all in its TNW policy, or that it will demand heavy concessions from Washington.

The other item on the discussion agenda will be Afghanistan - which the Pakistan Army oversees, more than the elected leadership. Since summer, there has been an unravelling of the Washington-Islamabad consensus, in which Pakistan enjoys a front seat in discussions on Afghanistan in exchange for delivering the Taliban at the peace dialogue and controlling violence in that country.

Instead, after the death of former Taliban chief, Mullah Omar, was announced in July, the new Pakistan-backed Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has apparently refused to continue the dialogue.

In October, surging Taliban violence forced President Obama to push back his troop withdrawal schedule, retaining thousands of US soldiers in Afghanistan through 2016. It is noteworthy that visitors to Pakistan last week included Peter Lavoy, Obama’s advisor on South Asia; Laurel Miller, Obama’s Acting Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Deng Xijun, China’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan. China has reportedly offered to host the Afghan peace talks.

Complicating the situation for the US and Pakistan is the apparent change of heart by Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, whose initial enthusiasm for a larger Pakistani role in Afghanistan’s peace dialogue involved his distancing himself from India, much to New Delhi’s discomfiture. Now, with the peace dialogue in tatters and more distance between Kabul and Islamabad, Indian policymakers are more optimistic.

First Published: Nov 16 2015 | 0:28 AM IST

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