The Obama administration is preparing to implement the first phase of its military drawdown in Afghanistan at a time when nuclear security inside Pakistan is at its most tenuous. That already delicate situation has only become more fragile in the weeks following the killing of Osama bin Laden in May of this year.
Since then, Pakistani officials and international security experts alike have become more concerned about the ability of the Pakistani military to safeguard and secure its nuclear weapons and related facilities from attack. The fundamental question, however, is who would mount such an assault?
U.S. officials and those outside Pakistan are concerned primarily with terrorists: a situation in which a small group of militants execute a coordinated attack on a nuclear facility in Pakistan, gaining access to loosely guarded assembled warheads or weapons-grade fissile material. Those terrorists certainly would not hesitate to use their newly acquired assets to detonate a nuclear weapon over a major city, killing thousands of innocent civilians and forever altering the international security landscape. The world as we know it would never again be the same.
This fear is not unjustified -- the ability of the Pakistani military to defend its fortified bases and installations against militant attack has been brought into question in recent years. Breaches of Pakistani bases by militant groups have occurred most notably in October 2009 in Rawalpindi and in May of this year in Karachi. For many outside Pakistan, a repeat of this type of event -- but with nuclear facilities, weapons and material -- is the ultimate nightmare scenario.
Inside Pakistan, however, the fundamental fear is that the country's nuclear installations would be attacked not by terrorists, but by the United States or India. Military and civilian officials there are afraid American or Indian commandos would sneak into the country -- much like U.S. Navy SEALs did last month -- and launch a coordinated attack on Pakistani nuclear facilities, stripping Pakistan of its most prized possession and what it considers its primary deterrent force.
Certainly, the fear is rooted in a newfound and very palpable sense of humiliation within the ranks of the Pakistani armed forces. In a country where the military is seen as one of the only functional national institutions -- with sole guardianship over the country's most potent weapon and bargaining chip -- the swiftness and success of the bin Laden raid have shaken faith in the military's ability to detect and deflect any threat to its assets. Indeed, both retiring and serving officers are calling for Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani to resign, along with ISI chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha and even President Asif Ali Zardari.
The need for Pakistan to reevaluate its security capabilities has never been more urgent. American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will force Pakistan to step up its capacity for ensuring internal stability, and this will place additional stress on a military and a national police force that are already stretched thin. At the same time, an erosion of integrity and trust within the ranks of the Pakistani military will make it even more difficult for Kayani to keep his troops in line.
In the meantime, Pakistan's ability to provide a significant degree of confidence in its nuclear security is being increasingly questioned by U.S. policymakers.
All of this is symptomatic of the widening gap of mistrust between Washington and Islamabad. Regrettably, this could not be happening at a more inopportune time. As Toby Dalton and George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment wrote last month, "It is impossible to build a strategic relationship when one partner can't be trusted to prevent nuclear terrorism and the other can't be trusted not to exploit its intelligence and military presence to steal or destroy the other's nuclear deterrent."
As the Obama administration prepares to shift responsibility for Afghanistan's security and governance to the Afghan people, it must keep in mind the security concerns of its reluctant ally in Islamabad. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship as it stands now is fraught with mutual mistrust, and is not sustainable. What is needed now more than ever is a realistic and firm reassessment by both countries of their bilateral strategic relationship. Only by asking difficult questions and identifying innovative ways to strengthen that relationship -- even separate from the nuclear security issue -- can Pakistan and the United States make significant and measurable progress towards improving security in the region.
Originally published on the Ploughshares Fund website.