A Hatf-VI (Shaheen-II) missile with a range of 2,000 km (1,242 miles) takes off during a test flight from an undisclosed location in Pakistan, April 2008.
A Hatf-VI (Shaheen-II) missile with a range of 2,000 km (1,242 miles) takes off during a test flight from an undisclosed location in Pakistan, April 2008. 

Since the 2005 Indian–U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement, a number of notable nuclear arms control analysts and scholars have called for mainstreaming Pakistan into the nuclear nonproliferation regime, meaning the de facto acceptance of Pakistan as a nuclear weapons power. Indeed, for a while the Barack Obama administration began negotiations with Pakistan to explore nuclear mainstreaming during its second term. Most of these scholars argue that the process of normalizing Pakistan’s nuclear status should proceed differently than U.S. negotiations with India, which led to only partial normalization. In India’s case, because of geopolitical and commercial considerations, Washington demanded and got few nonproliferation concessions from New Delhi. There were no nuclear arms caps, posture changes, or accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT), all of which were longstanding U.S. demands until the George W. Bush administration decided to do away with them. The failure of the United States to drive a hard nonproliferation bargain with India, these arms control advocates argue, has undermined the nuclear nonproliferation regime, a mistake that should not be repeated with Pakistan.

But pushing the nonproliferation track for normalizing Pakistan’s nuclear status would be a mistake. Indeed, Pakistan has rejected these proposals, demanding a nuclear agreement similar to the one negotiated with India. It is thus no surprise that the negotiations with the United States during Obama’s second term quickly ended in failure. Moreover, even if successful, such bargains would have done little to reduce the mounting dangers of a nuclear catastrophe that stem from the risks of state failure in Pakistan and its grand strategy of asymmetric warfare in South Asia.

In thinking through the case for mainstreaming a nuclear Pakistan, one must not lose sight of the two key principles that underlie U.S. nonproliferation policy. Those principles are to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons in the international system and to preserve the so-called nuclear taboo. Although the United States can no longer roll back the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, it has succeeded in walling it off from other nuclear aspirant states in the international system so far.

However, Washington has not paid sufficient attention to address the scenarios that pose the greatest danger to the continued prevalence of the nuclear taboo. The threat that Pakistan poses to the international community does not stem from the mere existence of its arsenal, but from the potential for its inadvertent and instrumental use. There are mounting threats from violent non-state actors who seem determined to steal from and sabotage Pakistani nuclear weapons. Likewise, the threat of a high-intensity conventional war between India and Pakistan remains a present and growing danger. Any U.S. negotiations must therefore focus first and foremost on transforming Pakistan into a stable and normal state.


In the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan became known for supplying sensitive nuclear weapons-related technologies and designs to countries such as Iran, Libya, and North Korea for commercial and strategic purposes. Pakistan’s so-called Khan network was a quasi-government proliferation ring run by A.Q. Khan, the head of the country’s centrifuge-based uranium enrichment program. In 2004, U.S. intelligence operatives finally destroyed the Khan network by penetrating it, seizing sensitive shipments, and unraveling its trading operations across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia. Since the early 2000s, the United States has successfully used a combination of diplomatic pressure, threats, and aid to halt any further Pakistani proliferation in the international system.

In terms of technology, U.S. attempts to secure Pakistani nuclear weapons have yielded mixed results. Washington has supplied Pakistan’s military with safes, locks, and remote monitoring technologies to secure nuclear weapon components, fissile material, and weapon storage facilities. But U.S. warhead assistance to Pakistan in the form of permissive action links—or systems that prevent the unauthorized arming and detonation of nuclear warheads—has stalled, because of fears that such assistance would make Pakistani weapons safer to use and also because it would violate U.S. commitments under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Likewise, Pakistan fears that U.S. technical fixes to its warheads might serve as backdoors to disable them or might force Pakistan to divulge sensitive technical details about the design of its weapons.

Pakistan fears that U.S. technical fixes to its warheads might serve as backdoors to disable them.

As a result, Washington has made little headway in mitigating the threats of theft and sabotage to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from the non-state terrorist groups that operate within Pakistan. Nor has the United States succeeded in reducing the likelihood of a conventional war between India and Pakistan, the scenario in which nuclear weapons, specifically Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons, are highly likely to come into play.


The consensus among international security analysts is that Pakistan remains the likeliest source of a nuclear terror incident in the future. This concern stems from the rapid expansion of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the last decade, weak state institutions, and mounting violence within the country. In the past decade, Pakistan has remained a fixture in the index of the world’s top 20 fragile states.

According to the BFRS dataset (an acronym of the first letters of the authors’ last names), which catalogues incidents of political violence in Pakistan reported in the press, the total number of terror attacks increased from 2,087 between 1988 and 2001, to 3,721 between 2001 and 2011, a jump of nearly 80 percent. The numbers of people killed in terrorist attacks also increased—from 2,086 to 3,697, an upward tick of 77 percent. Deaths from political violence increased from 10,873 during 1988–2001 to 24,966 between 2002–11, an increase of 130 percent. Overall, the total number of violent fatalities increased by 121 percent.

Amidst these increases in terror attacks and violence, Pakistan has sought to reassure the world that its nuclear arsenal remains safe. But several recent incidents have demonstrated the arsenal’s vulnerability to sabotage and theft. In 2009, Pakistani Taliban militants attacked the Pakistani army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, the citadel of the country’s security establishment. In 2011, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda attacked the Mehran naval base in Karachi and destroyed two U.S-supplied surveillance aircraft. One year later, Taliban militants attacked the Pakistani Air Force’s Kamra base in the northwest. Both the Kamra and Mehran bases are suspected storage sites of a portion of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, and the attacks could not have occurred without insider cooperation. The immediate and the most menacing threats to Pakistan’s arsenal stem from these violent non-state actors that figure in the Pakistani deep state’s own flawed and dangerous policies, a dynamic which U.S. policy ought to address as part of any nuclear mainstreaming effort.

The Islamist extremist militant groups posing this threat can be broken up into three categories: those engaged in fighting sectarian wars inside Pakistan (such as Sipah-e-Sahaba); those engaged in fighting the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies (such as the Pakistani Taliban); and those waging insurgent campaigns in Afghanistan (the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network) and India (Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed). The Pakistani state has nurtured the latter set of groups in an attempt to punch above its weight against India and establish regional primacy in Afghanistan.

Pakistan distinguishes between so-called good and bad insurgents depending on whether they help advance its geopolitical goals. For example, the Pakistani army has fought and sought to destroy the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan but not in Southern Punjab. It has also left the Afghan Taliban alone. In the summer of 2014, just the before the launch of its Zarb-e-Azb campaign against various militant groups in the northwest, the Pakistan Army allowed the Haqqani Network to relocate its assets from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan across the Durand Line to Afghanistan. Similarly, the army has done little to take on Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Jaish-e-Mohammed, militant groups engaged in asymmetric warfare against India. The problem with this differentiated approach is that all these groups often cooperate with one another on the ground and draw on overlapping reservoirs of financial and social support in Pakistan. Furthermore, the Pakistani state’s own project of Islamic nationalism has made the broader Pakistani public ambivalent toward the religious and social values that all of these groups espouse.

Gradually, the jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been gaining veto power over Pakistan’s national security policy in both India and Afghanistan, creating classic principal-agent dilemmas for the Pakistani deep state. The possibility of the Jaish-e-Mohammed or the Pakistani Taliban creating a high-profile mass casualty terror incident in India to trigger war with Pakistan is not as fantastic as it once seemed. And there is evidence to suggest that some within Pakistan’s military agencies support Islamist extremist terror groups. Although the Pakistani military has not released figures of such support, there are documented cases from the past two decades of military officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers cooperating with them. As the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, has pointed out, the militant attacks on the Mehran naval base in 2011 as well as the attack on the Kamra air base could not have occurred without cooperation from within the armed forces.

Given the growing possibilities of jihadist groups metastasizing and filling up the power vacuum inside Pakistan and the increasing capacity of such groups to provoke war between Pakistan and India, any attempt to mainstream Pakistan’s nuclear program must be tied to transforming the country into a stable state. To be sure, stability is a long-term project. Yet pressuring the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies to end support to jihadi groups and asymmetric warfare strategies is a key first step. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, for example, U.S. pressure forced Pakistan to withdraw support from the Taliban in Afghanistan. Military pressure from India similarly also caused the Pakistani military to temporarily rein in Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. These examples reinforce the idea that the goal of pressuring Pakistan to end its policy of asymmetric warfare as part of a nuclear mainstreaming effort is possible. What is required is sustained political pressure.


The second critical goal for the United States is to prevent the growth of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in areas where it is most susceptible to use or theft. Specifically, that means preventing the growth of Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons capabilities, which would be especially likely to be used in a war against India.

Pakistan’s arsenal is now believed to be the fastest growing in the world. In 1998, Pakistan was estimated to have only 10 to 15 fission weapons in its possession. Since then, its plutonium and highly enriched uranium stockpiles have ballooned. Conservative estimates suggest that Pakistan could end up with an inventory of roughly 200 to 300 warheads by 2020. Such an arsenal would make Pakistan, at least in quantitative terms, the third- or fourth-largest nuclear power in the world.

In response to this development, arms control think tanks such as the Stimson Center have recommended that Pakistan return to a so-called recessed posture, akin to the one it maintained in the early 1990s, as part of any nuclear mainstreaming deal. The key characteristic of this posture was the separation of the fissile and non-fissile parts of nuclear weapons, as well as the separation of weapons from their delivery systems. But in the two decades since, strategic elites in both India and Pakistan have embraced the view that a recessed posture hinders robust deterrence. The idea that Pakistan could be persuaded to walk back into accepting the posture independent of changes in India’s is therefore unmoored from reality.

Other bargains proposed by arms control advocates, including Pakistan’s accession to the CTBT and lifting its opposition to the FMCT in exchange for mainstreaming it, have little value for other reasons. In the case of the CTBT, Pakistan already abides by an informal moratorium on further testing, and the weapons in its current and projected arsenal are all based on previously tested designs. Pakistan’s acquiescing to the CTBT could therefore strengthen the nonproliferation regime on paper, but would have zero impact on the country’s current nuclear buildup. Likewise, even if Pakistan could be persuaded to drop its opposition to the FMCT, the treaty might take at least until 2020 to negotiate, ratify, and bring into force. Within that time, Pakistan will have accumulated enough fissile material to build roughly 600 weapons.

The nuclear bargains proposed by arms control advocates to mainstream Pakistan are attempts to rein in the sophistication, numbers, and expanding range of Pakistan’s arsenal—in other words. Laudable as this goal is, it leaves the possibility that Pakistan will deliberately or inadvertently use nuclear weapons unchecked. It is this prospect that poses the most immediate and ominous threat to the nuclear taboo.

When thinking of Pakistan’s prospects for deliberate and inadvertent nuclear use, it is useful to disaggregate its arsenal into strategic and tactical parts. The strategic parts in Pakistan’s arsenal consist of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that likely deploy warheads with yields of between 10 and 30 kilotons. These weapons are deployed deep inside Pakistan, far from its borders with India. In the event of a conflict, Pakistan probably intends to use these long-range weapons against Indian cities. But despite Pakistan’s first-use doctrine, under which it avowedly threatens to use nuclear weapons first against an Indian invading force, the long-range weapons would probably be held in reserve until Indian forces threatened the survival of the Pakistani military and state. Further, because the long-range weapons are hidden deep within Pakistan, and since the warheads are separated from their delivery systems during peacetime, the threat of these weapons being used inadvertently is low. The strategic component of Pakistan’s arsenal is therefore relatively secure; it does not present a high risk of inadvertent use.

Pakistan’s development of shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons and its threat to deploy them early on the conventional battlefield against India, on the other hand, presents unsettling threats. The precise state of Pakistan’s tactical nuclear force is not known with certainty. The best open source analyses suggest that it probably consists of one-to-five kiloton-yield weapons that could be delivered by air or short-range ballistic missiles. Pakistan treats its tactical nuclear weapons as a force that may or may not become part of conventional war fighting operations in the future, and considers the uncertainty this policy generates a valuable deterrent.

Pakistan’s hinted deployment strategy for its tactical nuclear force is to place weapon systems close to the border on potential conventional battlefields with India. The threat of these weapons being destroyed by invading Indian forces raises the prospects of Pakistan actually using them in the early phases of a possible war. The problem with this deployment strategy is that it dangerously lowers the bar for a much broader, larger, and destructive nuclear conflagration between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan has taken several organizational measures to lower the risk of inadvertent and accidental nuclear use on the battlefield. These include the separation of its regional conventional and nuclear commands; the absence of pre-delegated authority for nuclear use to commanders in the Strategic Plans Division Force, the organization which safeguards the weapons; and a deliberately laborious three-man rule to initiate the process of nuclear detonation. But the bringing of nuclear weapons into play on the conventional battlefield creates ample opportunities for command-and-control failures and increases the likelihood of accidents and theft.

The goal of U.S. policy must therefore be to walk Pakistan back from this dangerous posture, as it is the scenario in which Pakistan would most likely use nuclear weapons. In addition, any mainstreaming bargain must be tied to preventing Pakistan from integrating tactical nuclear weapons into its conventional military in the future—a course of action that NATO’s experiences show can be disastrous. In the 1950s and 1960s, NATO discovered that tactical nuclear weapons constituted a command-and-control nightmare. NATO military exercises in Western Europe during that time also showed that the large-scale use of tactical nuclear weapons would end up destroying the very areas they were tasked to defend. Simulations of tactical nuclear weapons use on the India–Pakistan border, especially in the theaters of the past conventional wars between the two countries, have borne out the same conclusions.


Tying the mainstreaming of Pakistan’s nuclear status to nuclear arms reductions, posture changes, and compliance with testing and fissile material cut off treaties, as many arms control advocates suggest, is unviable. More significantly, it misses a historic opportunity for tackling the source of the critical danger underlying a nuclear Pakistan.

The goal of any future negotiations to mainstream Pakistan must be to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent and instrumental nuclear violence to a minimum, specifically by convincing Pakistan to end its strategy of asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan and India. This would have two positive effects. First, it would free up the Pakistani deep state to rein in jihadist terror groups within Pakistan. Such a reversal would be destabilizing in the short term, but in the longer term, the state would regain some of its internal sovereignty, helping to reestablish its monopoly of violence. This, coupled with declining challenges from violent armed groups, would reduce the dangers of nuclear theft or sabotage.

Second, it would give India a powerful reason to walk back from its doctrine of limited conventional war under nuclear conditions. Under this doctrine, the Indian military has developed options for invading Pakistan as a means to punish it for its asymmetric war strategy. Although Indian governments have never formally endorsed this doctrine, the theoretical threat of an Indian attack has been sufficient to keep the Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons program alive. A decision by India to drop its threat to invade Pakistan will provide the Pakistani military the best possible incentives to scale down and eventually phase out its deployments of tactical nuclear weapons.

Persuading Pakistan to abandon asymmetric war is not the equivalent of asking it to give up its revisionist geopolitical goals in Afghanistan and India. Rather, it amounts to asking Pakistan to change its tactics from military to political. That alone would help stabilize the internal security of the Pakistani state and reduce the risks of a conventional or nuclear war in South Asia. In India’s case, the United States sidestepped the nuclear nonproliferation regime and made special accommodations for it out of geopolitical and commercial reasons. There are no compelling reasons why Washington should not show similar flexibility in Pakistan’s case.

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