Nuclear Doubts: Pakistani weakness is eroding internal morale, fastNovember 10, 2009
Seymour Hersh might have come up with some absurd findings, like concluding that religious extremism has multiplied in Pakistan because no one offered him Johnny Walker Black during his recent visit. But apart from that, Pakistan’s national security managers should sit up and take notice of one glaring fact: The US media and some circles in the Washington establishment are behind the worst global demonization campaign against Pakistan. Now this is denting national morale and forcing Pakistanis to question if their military is capable of defending the nation, since politicians have proven to be a disaster.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Two curious aspects of the New Yorker story on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is that the report singles out the Pakistani military – and not the civilian government – as partner in alleged secret negotiations with the Obama administration to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The other is the objective behind leaking the story – if indeed some US officials helped in leaking details – since the story only serves to make it more difficult for Pakistani officials cooperating with Washington on the nuclear question.
In May, when Boston Globe published a similar story quoting unnamed and unverifiable sources revealing that Pakistani officials have accepted a proposal to ship some highly enriched uranium to the United States for disposal, there was no reference whatsoever to Pakistani military. The Globe depicted the talks as a government-to-government exercise.
For all intents, the latest story seeks to embarrass the Pakistani military. This probably explains the immediate reaction of the US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson. Not that she actually denied the alleged talks. Her written statement was carefully worded to deny her government’s “intention to seize Pakistani nuclear weapons or material.”
The element of embarrassment also explains the statement of Pakistan’s Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Tariq Majid, who made it a point to respond to the question, ‘How much does US really know about Pakistan’s nuclear program?’ In a sharp public retort uncommon to Pakistan’s top military brass, Gen. Majeed answered, ‘Only that much as they can guess and nothing more’.
Important parts of Mr. Seymour Hersh’s investigative story remain unaddressed. No government or military official has confirmed or denied the revelation in the New Yorker that former President Pervez Musharraf shared with US officials information about the number of warheads, their locations and their security plan. Considering the embarrassing concessions that he gave the Americans [he allowed US diplomats, officials and military personnel unprecedented privileges at Pakistani airports at a time when Pakistani officials were humiliated on entry to US. Pakistan has withdrawn those concessions.]
[It is also important to question some of Mr. Hersh’s findings, which border on the ridiculous. The last time Mr. Hersh visited Pakistan was five years ago by his own statement. Yet he concluded that since the few politicians, journalists and retired generals he met this time did not offer him Johnny Walker Black this must be a sign of growing religious extremism in Pakistan and in the ranks of Pakistan military. At other places, he has exaggerated the impact of two retired army officers that he interviewed on soldiers and middle rank officers. Mr. Hersh appeared to have made little effort to use his visit to the country to try to understand the real Pakistan. Instead, he felt comfortable regurgitating media stereotypes. Which is fine since his report fits in with the overall US political and military policy thrust with regards to Pakistan.]
Mr. Hersh’s report comes six months after the Boston Globe story that broke the news on behind-the-scenes talks between Islamabad and Washington on US proposals to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, including a US suggestion to ship out Pakistani uranium. No one in Islamabad denied the story at the time. The fixed Pakistani response to such stories has not changed much in recent years: that Pakistan has an excellent command and control regime and that Pakistan does not need outside help to secure its arsenal.
So, is the Pakistani government or military really talking secretly with the Americans on how to secure Pakistani nukes?
One explanation that retired military officers are giving is that Pakistani officers may be talking nukes to the Americans but not giving them the right information. If true, this policy line seeks to keep the Americans engaged with Pakistan without allowing Washington any real access.
This is not farfetched. Pakistani civilian and military governments have perfected a uniquely Pakistani version of the American idiom, ‘to roll with the punches and survive to fight another day.’ Only that Pakistan never really fights even for what is its legitimate right. Under this policy, Islamabad has accepted on several occasions to play along, live with the accusations and insinuations about its nuclear program, and hope to stall, engage, and win over the antagonistic elements of the Washington establishment, both political and military.
But the latest report takes the debate to a new level. Pakistani officials grappling with the PR aspect of this story need to consider the following:
1. The latest report is particularly demoralizing for ordinary Pakistanis, in the backdrop of an overall deteriorating strategic environment for Pakistani interests, internal and external. Pakistan’s national security managers, civilian and military, need to pay attention to the hypothetical threshold of national morale. Dangerously low levels of national morale could prove fatal in case of war with India or a US-led military invasion of Pakistani territory from Afghanistan.
2. Is there someone in Washington, within its political, military and intelligence communities that might have an interest in embarrassing Pakistani officials who are allegedly engaged in secret nuclear talks with Washington? Is someone trying to sabotage policy initiatives of the Obama administration? In such a case, Pakistani officials – especially in the Pakistani intelligence community – need to give more weight to reports that anti-Pakistan activities orchestrated on Afghan soil cannot happen without some level of American involvement.
3. That the US media continues to cause tremendous damage to Pakistan’s reputation and standing in the international community. Pakistan is receiving enemy treatment from the US media. Pakistani officials must understand that US media cannot mount similar attacks on other countries such as Turkey and Egypt because leaderships in those countries generally keep US officials on a leash and leverage Washington’s strategic needs to their favor. In Pakistan, we have a ruling elite that is micromanaged from Washington, thanks to a deal that former President Musharraf signed with Washington and London.
4. The New Yorker report harms the image of the Pakistani military leadership in the eyes of the soldiers and officers in middle and lower ranks. This is especially relevant to the debate raging in official US circles about a mutiny within the Pakistan army. Some American policymakers are deliberately using Afghanistan to push Pakistan to the wall in the hope that instability in Pakistan would reach a level where it could trigger a mutiny inside the Pakistani military against both the military leadership and the government. Anyone who knows Pakistan will instantly understand that this notion is exaggerated, but this US debate should tell Pakistan’s military leadership and people something about the destructive line of policy thinking that Washington is pursuing in Pakistan’s neighborhood.
Common wisdom in both the Pakistani political elite and some parts of the military bureaucracy says that ‘engaging’ the Americans on the subject of the security of Pakistani nukes can be beneficial to Pakistan. It would keep Washington engaged. It would provide opportunities to milk the Americans of more aid money.
But no one in the policymaking circles is apparently weighing the downside: The ‘engagement’ is emboldening the Americans. The ‘engagement’ – or secret talks, call them whatever you want – are sending the wrong signals to ordinary Pakistanis at a time when more of our people are convinced that Pakistan’s troubles stem from American failures in Afghanistan.
Pakistani schools and colleges are under attack when those in Iraq and Afghanistan are safe. This is happening because of American policy blunders and not just because of extremism inside Pakistan. Our problems are also the result of Islamabad refusing to submit completely to the US military strategy that wants to give India a larger role in Afghanistan. Pakistan, with a strong military and intelligence setup, is an obstacle in this strategy.