Could Pakistan Provoke a Nuclear War?

The U.S. should prioritize Pakistan as a nuclear threat as the country’s’ nuclear arsenal continues to rapidly grow as a deterrent from India aggression while Pakistani affiliated terrorist organizations raise the chances of a conflict. Photo Credit: Reuters.

By: Adrienne Thompson, Columnist

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remains exposed to terrorist organizations holding anti-western sentiments as Pakistan’s lack of effort to curtail the development of terrorist organizations puts the U.S. at risk of attack. Pakistan is known to work with terrorist organizations, such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network. President Trump raised the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in his 2017 Afghanistan and South Asia strategy speech stating, “We [the U.S.]  must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.” [[i]] These terrorists organizations now have the chance to provoke a full scale war between India and Pakistan, which may potentially include the use of nuclear weapons. The current state of heightened tensions between the two countries is in part due to the bombing in Kashmir, February 14, 2019, on an Indian paramilitary convoy, by the pro-Pakistan terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed. India retaliated by launching an air strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot on February 26. Pakistan in turn subsequently claimed to have shot down two Indian fighter planes and captured an Indian pilot. The pilot was returned to India on March 1, but tensions between the countries remain. [[ii]] The likelihood these tensions leading to the use of nuclear weapons remains unclear. [[iii]] The U.S. remains reliant on its partnership with Pakistan to succeed in Afghanistan, but in light of the current tensions with India, the U.S. needs to redefine its relationship with Pakistan to ensure the protection of its nuclear weapons by negotiating with India to establish stability and peace between the disputing states and forming a nuclear treaty with Pakistan to control its growing nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan established its nuclear arsenal and formed relationships with terrorist organizations as a means to deter India. Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 territorial disputes between the two nations has been a source of significant conflict. India holds most of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, where a majority of the pro-Pakistan terrorist activity has occurred.[[iv]] India’s nuclear program began first out of a desire to protect India’s claim over this region, leading Pakistan to develop its own nuclear program as a direct response. India’s first nuclear bomb test, code-named Smiling Buddha, in 1974 and its test of five nuclear devices in 1998,[[v]] combined with their territorial victories, was enough to put Pakistan in a security dilemma and lead to the creation of Pakistan’s nuclear program. In response to India’s nuclear missile tests in 1998, Pakistan conducted six nuclear missile tests within the same year, making Pakistan a declared nuclear power. [[vi]] Since 1998, Pakistan has not conducted any nuclear tests, potentially indicating sufficient confidence in the effectiveness of their nuclear devices.

The rapid progression of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities is cause for concern and calls into question the intended use of nuclear weapons, the security of South Asia, and the potential for proliferation. Despite Pakistan’s developing nuclear arsenal, “Islamabad has yet to formally declare a nuclear doctrine, so it remains unclear under what conditions Pakistan might use nuclear weapons.” [[vii]]Through the expansion and development of its nuclear facilities, Pakistan has produced more warheads and missiles than the U.S. intelligence community previously predicted. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated in 1999 that Pakistan would have 60-80 warheads by 2020. [[viii]] Pakistan is estimated to have a stockpile of 140-150 warheads, as well as an increase of plutonium reactors and uranium enrichment facilities, and collection of short-range, sea-based, air-launched, and long-range missiles.[[ix]] The increase in nuclear production capabilities is cause for concern because Pakistan is not a member of any nuclear treaties. Pakistan refused to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is the only country blocking the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) to end the production of fissile material, weapons that contain both uranium and plutonium, nuclear weapons.[[x]] With a growing nuclear arsenal and no nuclear doctrine, addressing Pakistan as nuclear power needs to be addressed by the global community.

U.S. success in Afghanistan is reliant on its cooperation with Pakistan, because of its border with Afghanistan provides supply routes and the country’s connection to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations allow for negotiation settlements.[[xi]] Security and military aid were given to Pakistan as an incentive, but the funds go right back to terrorist organizations who continue to contribute to U.S. casualties. Since 2001 U.S. presidential administrations have struggled with how to get Pakistan to cooperate and cut ties with terrorist organizations, but Pakistan’s behavior has not changed. President Trump publicly criticizing the Pakistani government, claiming it to be full of “lies and deceit,” and suspending all U.S. military and security aid from Pakistan, an estimate of about $1.3 billion until Pakistan changes its behavior.[[xii]] The Obama administration gradually diminished aid to Pakistan due to the country’s consistent behavior towards sponsored terrorism, but Trump’s decisions to completely suspend aid shows a transition in the U.S. Pakistan relationship and future progress of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has proven to be an unreliable partner, but it is in the best interest of the U.S. to continue to build a relationship with Pakistan not only for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan but also to ensure the security of South Asia. The February Kashmir suicide bombing not only fueled built up anger from territorial disputes with India but drawing into question whether India or Pakistan will issue a violent response in return. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, denies any involvement or corroboration with Jaish-e-Mohammed on the attack and has said Pakistan will assist in an investigation, but has made it clear that should India respond with an attack, Pakistan will, “respond decisively and comprehensively to any aggression or misadventure.”[[xiii]] This calls into question the use of Pakistan’s growing nuclear stockpile and the fear of a potential nuclear war with India. U.S. suspension of security aid to has not produced any change, calling for the U.S. develop a new strategy to put pressure on Pakistan. Facilitating negotiations between India and Pakistan is necessary, as well as creating a nuclear treaty to diminish and decommission nuclear plants between the two nuclear powers would be ideal. Diminishing the threat each state poses would diminish the security dilemma both powers feel, but to begin this process, the U.S.  should focus on developing counterterrorism efforts to incentivize Pakistan to cut ties with terrorist groups. Talks between India and Pakistan have occurred in the past, but terrorist attacks, such as the recent Kashmir attack, just undermine the progress and the process starts over. [[xiv]] Creating a nuclear peace treaty, such as the NPT or further negotiations for the FMCT, to ensure the security and containment of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons should become a new priority; otherwise, nuclear warfare with Pakistani weapons might not seem too unrealistic in the future.


[[i]] Trump, Donald. “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia.” The White House. April 21, 2017.

[[ii]] Ashok Sharma and Babar Zaheer. “Pakistan Hands Over Indian Pilot Back to India.” Time. March 01, 2019. Accessed March 08, 2019.

[[iii]] Editorial Board. “The Kashmir attack leaves the U.S. and India facing a dilemma about Pakistan.” New York Times. February 19, 2019.

[[iv]] “Pakistan.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. April 2016.

[[v]] “Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan, and the Rise of Proliferation.” International Institute for Strategic Studies (London, 2007) in “Pakistan,” Nuclear Threat Initiative.

[[vi]] “Pakistan,” Nuclear Threat Initiative.

[[vii]] Ibid.

[[viii]] US Defense Intelligence Agency. “The Decades Ahead: 1999-2020, A Primer on the Future Threat.” In Scarborough R (2004) Rumsfeld’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Anti-Terrorist Commander. 194–223. In Kristensen, Hans M., Norris, Robert, and Diamond, Julia. “Pakistani Nuclear Forces,” in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74:5. 348-358.

[[ix]] Kristensen, Hans M., Norris, Robert, and Diamond, Julia. “Pakistani Nuclear Forces,” in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74:5. 348-358.

[[x]] “Pakistan. ” Nuclear Threat Initiative.

[[xi]] Afzal, Madiha. “The future of U.S. Pakistani Relations.” Brookings. January 12, 2018.

[[xii]] Harris, Gardiner and Landler, Mark. “Trump, Citing Pakistan as a ‘Safe Haven’ for Terrorists, Freezes Aid.” New York Times.  January 4, 2018.

[[xiii]] The Associated Press. “Pakistan PM Authorizes Military Response if India Attacks.” New York Times. February 21, 2019.

[[xiv]] Felbab-Brown, Vanda. “Why Pakistan supports terrorist groups, and why the U.S. finds it so heard to induce change.” Brookings. January 5, 2018.

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