Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Policy: The Case for Self-Restraint

The recent Iranian nuclear deal has been termed a major breakthrough by experts of nuclear nonproliferation issues. The deal is merely an agreed political framework to seek a permanent solution to the issue, but it has reaffirmed the faith of nonproliferation proponents, albeit with caution. The outcome of the deal suggests that a convergence of interests could persuade states to solve any complex issue through dialogue, provided the resolve is there. The most positive aspect of the deal is that the United States and Iran came to an agreement despite the fact that their bilateral relations have been plagued by a huge trust deficit and hostility. The deal would also result in the emergence of a keen interest in promoting the nonproliferation cause, and would encourage P-5 states, led by the United States, to address the issue of WMDs possessed by the states outside the NPT like India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would be a significant source of attraction due to several unfortunate and hard-to-ignore factors.

These factors include:

Nuclear experts and U.S. officials who had experience in handling the tactical nuclear weapons issue during the Cold War have expressed deep concerns over the fallout of Pakistan’s strategy of “full spectrum deterrence.” They have raised the issues of command and control, security of these weapons (especially during a crisis), and implications for crisis stability. The Indian response – denying any difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and adhering to a policy of massive retaliation – has further generated concerns over the possibility of nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. Moreover, many believe that the presence of terrorist groups in Pakistan and Pakistan’s reluctance to take effective action against them could give birth to a crisis between India and Pakistan in the wake of a possible terrorist attack on Indian soil by a Pakistan-based jihadist. Some degree of criticism is to be expected, but the inability of Pakistan to effectively address and respond to these concerns has caused further apprehensions for regional peace and security.

The recent test of Shaheen-III has further aggravated the situation for Pakistan. The missile has a range of 2,750 km and provides coverage over all parts of India. But the range of 2,750 km means that it can also reach and hit the state of Israel. In this regard, factors such as the infamous myth of the “Islamic Bomb” associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and rumors about the possible extended deterrence policy for Saudi Arabia due to suspected Saudi funding have raised eyebrows in the Western world. India, in particular, could manipulate these notions to put Pakistan under pressure from the international community.

The issue of nuclear security has also been of prime importance for the international community in recent years. President Obama’s Prague speech and subsequent nuclear security summits have generated a huge amount of attention regarding the issue of nuclear security. The proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) is considered to be not only an important step towards disarmament, but also a very essential cornerstone for the purpose of achieving nuclear security. Pakistan’s blockade to negotiate the terms of the treaty has irked many states, including the United States. Pakistan has tried hard to satisfy the international community by taking effective security measures and by enacting domestic legislation for nuclear security objectives. But the FMCT policy and A.Q. Khan’s legacy are not helping Pakistan in its mission to seek the status of a normal nuclear weapon state. The world does not believe that A.Q. Khan was involved in proliferating WMD technology without the help of Pakistan’s military.

Factors such as religious extremism, terrorism, the overall internal security situation, the military’s control over the nuclear weapons program, and political and economic instability have also posed huge challenges for Pakistan to attain the status of a normal nuclear weapon state. The apprehensions of the international community are further increased in the wake of General Kidwai’s statements during his recent visit to United States. His remarks at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference indicated no end in sight to Pakistan’s weapon development policy. His remarks, coupled with the news about Pakistan’s deal with Chinese submarines, hint that Pakistan is focusing on covering up its “weak link” by developing its naval capabilities. The sea-based nuclear capability carries the inherent threat of unauthorized use due to command and control issues. Furthermore, such a capability could increase the chances of an unauthorized or accidental launch because of the mated and readiness status of nuclear weapons.

In the wake of the scenario mentioned above, the international community, led by the United States, has a strong case to persuade Pakistan to cap its nuclear weapons program, with some inherent advantages, but also with some tough challenges. The prospects for success of nonproliferation and arms control objectives are positive if the goals are modest (capping Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program and effective oversight by the civilian leadership) and if the strategy of quid-pro-quo is applied. The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, Pakistan’s leverage of its role in the war against terrorism (particularly in Afghanistan), Indian reluctance to diplomatically engage Pakistan in the wake of 2008 Mumbai attacks, and possible Indian refusal to address the issues that concern Pakistan like the Indian ballistic missile defence program (BMD) and the Cold Start strategy are some important factors that will pose a tough challenge to the international community and the United States to persuade Pakistan towards nuclear moderation. Pakistan’s obsession with India makes it rigid in its foreign and security policymaking. The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal has been received by Pakistan not only as discriminatory but also as a negative development for its nuclear deterrence capability.

The advantages that the international community has include the momentum to seek nonproliferation objectives, Pakistan’s growing sense of isolation, and domestic pressure in Pakistan in the face of grave socioeconomic issues. A feeble economy is Pakistan’s biggest weakness, and this factor could force Pakistan to concede on nuclear issues. History suggests that Pakistan has made some tough decisions in return for economic incentives. The strangling state of the economy, the perceived opportunity to improve the economy by receiving aid from the United States, and the abandonment of sanctions were major reasons behind Pakistan’s decision to join the hands with the United States in the war on terror and to abandon support of the Taliban after 9/11.

In the backdrop of the scenario mentioned above, Pakistan has to prepare itself to make some tough policy decisions for the larger interests of its people. Pressure to cap its nuclear weapons program from the international community puts Pakistan in a very disadvantageous position. But through careful consideration and a proactive strategy, Pakistan can put itself in an advantageous position. The most important issue for Pakistan is to clearly outline its national security objectives and to redefine its national interests by putting the welfare of the people of Pakistan as its most urgent priority.

Pakistan has to determine the role of its nuclear weapons in its national security. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability should be only one component of its grand strategy to seek national security objectives. Diplomacy should be preferred to seek the objectives of national security, especially vis-à-vis India. Pakistan should engage India in arms control negotiations and, in this regard, Pakistan can propose the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons in return for a limited Indian BMD program. Most importantly, Pakistan can propose the elimination of these weapons in return for negotiation on India’s Cold Start doctrine. However, the threat of a limited conventional attack from India can only be neutralized if Pakistan abandons its policy of supporting militant groups involved with terrorism in India. Pakistan should also participate in FMCT negotiations in good faith, because FMCT could be instrumental in maintaining the existing nuclear parity with India. Moreover, Pakistan has to improve its international standing to seek a greater convergence of interests with developed countries, and specifically the United States, in the economic sector.

The military control of nuclear weapons has resulted in Pakistan’s inability to relate its nuclear capability to other elements of national power, as the military responds only through military means to counter threats from India, which puts even more burden on Pakistan’s feeble economy. Pakistan needs a strong political oversight and understanding of its nuclear weapons to seek peaceful engagement with India, to reduce costs, to improve its international standing, and to ensure the transparency and accountability of its strategic institutions.


Image: Metin Aktas-Anadolu Agency, Getty

Posted in , FMCT, Foreign Policy, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Policy, Security

Mirza Muhammad Masood Akbar

Mirza Muhammad Masood Akbar

Mirza Muhammad Masood Akbar has M.Sc. and M.Phil degrees from the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, Pakistan. His areas of interest is non-proliferation and arms control in South Asia. He was a Research Fellow at the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute (SASSI), Islamabad from December 2013 to December 2014. He was also a visiting fellow at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, MIIS California (Spring 2015). He can be reached at

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17 thoughts on “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Policy: The Case for Self-Restraint

  1. Masood,

    Firstly, I really enjoyed your article. I am not well acquainted with the topic of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons policy and so it was very interesting to read your article from the viewpoint of a Pakistani. Your policy recommendations seemed very reasonable.

    Pakistan should engage India in arms control negotiations
    Pakistan can propose the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons for a limited Indian BMD program
    Pakistan can propose the elimination of these weapons in return for negotiation on India’s Cold Start doctrine.
    Pakistan should abandon its policy of supporting militant groups involved with terrorism in India. Pakistan should also participate in FMCT negotiations
    Pakistan has to improve its international standing in the economic sector.

    How do the critics of these policy recommendations argue against them?

  2. Proposal on trading Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons for pared down Indian BMD program is beyond the realm of what leadership in either country can possibly fathom. However the boundaries of this discussion should not be set by military and political leadership. Pakistan is developing advanced nuclear capabilities without addressing key issues in command and control, India developing advanced conventional capabilities like a hypersonic cruise missile and BMD without clarifying them in a posture review. Before both countries cross certain thresholds in technology there needs to be at least the auspices of a dialogue to realize the consequences and negotiate alternatives. This article offers a few talking points for such negotiations, however likely we should see those materialize in the immediate future.

  3. Dear brother Masood, another very good article. I really like your way of thinking. I believe that there are very few people in the world that can bring change in this rigid world (I see you one of them) and you have all the characteristics that are required for someone to make an impact. But as a friend of yours, I would just advise you that “who wishes to fight must first count the cost”.

  4. Do you intend to write a series of blogs?
    You have identified that P-5 need to address the issue of WMD possession by “India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.”
    Do you intend writing similar blogs on rest of the 4 countries and identify why their nuke possession needs to be handled or Pakistan was the lone lucky state deserving your scholarly analysis

  5. @Dear Masood, After reading this piece I barely say that you are totally at sea. 1st, terrorism is a global issue. To curb it, Pakistani Military has gone all offensive and destroyed most of the safe heavens in tribal areas. You simply can’t underestimate the success of military operation in tribal belt. We don’t know what India responded when Pakistan asked for Samjhota express bombings probe and India ignored Pakistan’s plea for neutral investigation.
    2ndly, Pakistan doesn’t want to indulge in any kind of conflict with India, its crystal clear by looking at Indian military supremacy. Pakistan’s TNWs in this regard seen as response to Indian Cold Start Doctrine. You know Pakistan’s policies are Indian centric particularly in fragile security environment.
    3rd, Pakistan’s nuclear command and control meets global standards that’s why its recognized as most improved state in nuclear safety and security. Currently, Pakistan’s navy lacks resources as well as technology to guard its territorial waters. As a result sea-based terrorism is increasing drastically. Pakistan aims to purchase submarines from china that will boost its naval capabilities to counter threats. Pakistan never raised its concerns on Indian nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers, so pointing fingers on Pakistan for submarine purchase is unjustifiable. Unfortunately, global community has isolated Pakistan particularly in nuclear business so it has to rely its indigenous resources. For your information FMCT is discriminatory and it offers nothing convincing for global nuclear disarmament.

  6. The command and control issues associated with Sea-based nuclear capability holds true for every country that possess this capability, so you don’t have to put Pakistan into the bad light. look through a broader lens before pinpointing at any particular country.

  7. Again very well organized article with deep insight to the vulnerable nature of nukes of Pakistan. I am completely endorsing your point about the control of nuclear weapons by the military brass. Already the military doctrine has dented Pakistan and has labeled the country from a prosperous and nurturing state to a insecure and terror export state. Although it was a need to balance the power in the region especially with arch rival India, but authority of nuclear weapons in the hands of military is not the solution. Moreover, a country that has innumerable domestic issues (as you have mentioned) should have been resolved before expanding the nuclear and missile programs. There is another possibility that Pakistan may give Saudis the technology, if not the bomb. This will be a blow to non-proliferation efforts. In the end what i fear is the issue that these sensitive weapons may go in the hands of militants who have already attacked sensitive installations like GHQ, Kamra Air Base, Karachi and Peshawar Air Port and many others. Although the mechanism of controlling nuclear weapons is strictly under sophisticated command and control however, given the ideological drift inside army, the possibility of nukes going into the hands of terrorists cannot be ruled out entirely.

  8. @ Dear Yasir Hussain: Of course terrorism is a global issue and Pakistan has launched a major military operation against the groups like TTP. But the groups that concerns international community are the militant groups that have been involved in cross-border terrorism like lashkar i taiba and we all know that these groups are still operating in Pakistan freely. As a Pakistanis we should also be worrying about the sectarian militants groups that are being used by the ISI to counter the insurgency in Balochistan. I personally believe that the real “tactical weapons” of our military are these militants groups that will be used against India in Kashmir and Afghanistan in case a crisis breaks out between India and Pakistan.
    Secondly you are right that Pakistan has been considered as the most improved state in nuclear safety and security but you are misinterpreting this as ultimate success. Pakistan is still at 22nd out of 25 countries that produce the nuclear material that is weapon use-able as for as nuclear safety and security is concerned.
    Thirdly, you need to check your facts as I don’t think that Pakistan is buying submarines worth of $5 billion to counter the threats of terrorism.
    Fourthly, a weaker state like Pakistan is not in a position to take decisions that could cost the diplomatic isolation on the basis of principles. Pakistan has to make decision purely on the basis of its national interest and this national interest should not be defined in terms of the institutional interests of Pakistan’s Army.

  9. @ Dear Sohaib Ali: I will not write blogs about any other state since I am only concerned about my own country. The argument of my blog is missed by some people. I have simply identified the factors that concern the rest of the world about the Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program and the possible pressure that would be exerted by US and international community in coming months. The factors that concern me the most are the socio-economic and political cost of these nuclear weapons. We all know the severity of the issue of loadsheding in Pakistan during summer. The major reasons of this crisis include the lack of funds to buy the fuel for power plants and lack of resources to overcome the problem of line losses. I would expect from my leadership that instead of spending billions of dollars to buy submarines or any other “weapons of peace,” they should spend this money to address the issue of loadsheding. It hurts me when I see the people in my area living miserably during the summer without electricity when temperature is above 107f. Patriotism must be considered as mere a tool for state to exploit the public, if the decision making elite is deliberately ignoring the issues that concern the public.

  10. Yasir Hussain: Just a brief note on command and control. I don’t know what global standard to which you are referring to, varying levels of transparency amongst nuclear powers hinder the establishment of norms. However an almost too common question which rises with Pakistan is the lack of clarity regarding what systems prevent degradation of a nuclear weapon or accidental detonation, such as Permissive Action Links (PALS). I asked Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS at an event last Spring on this very question and he acknowledged we stil know nothing about the safety mechanisms for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. That is an example of how Pakistan falls short, however as I said, transparency is a work in progress for everyone.

  11. Masood you mean well but don’t be carried away by what is placed before you by different quarters.
    Place your thoughts in the outer box or as they say ponder outside the box! Have you ever tried to see the shadow of your reflection in the mirror, when you do then don’t let it escape for that is the genie that got out of the lamp. We in Pakistan have two distinct cultures one that is close to Afghan and Central Asia and other to the Ganges Plains of India. Our thinking is based on our cultural links towards our neighbors. Even if we both India and Pakistan call upon UN to take over the nuclear assets it would be a winning factor for India both geopolitically and socioeconomically. For us it may be the latter provided we find in the haystack the civilian leadership with honesty, integrity and intelligence that is balanced with Emotional Quotient.

  12. Mirza,
    Excellent post, as usual.
    According to NGO outsiders who measure outputs based on observable infrastructure, Pakistan can produce about 20 bombs’ worth of fissile material per year. One question this estimate poses is how much more security Pakistan buys with an addition twenty bombs per year?

  13. @krepon: Sir,
    Thank you so much for your feedback. Your comments are really source of encouragement for me. I am not sure even if Pakistan needs 20 weapons per year to ensure its security, if the numbers of Pakistan’s warheads are closer to what the estimates are by the few international think tanks. I believe that Pakistan’s nuclear strategy should be scenario based. Both India and Pakistan believe that nuclear weapons have ruled out all-out war and both states also want to avert a crisis situation that could lead to nuclear exchange. But the issue of terrorism and territorial disputes can possibly give birth to a crisis with inherent dangers of escalation. So the threat to Pakistan’s security consists of either from Indian “Cold Start” style of military strategy or threat of pre-emptive strikes. In this backdrop, I think Pakistan’s minimum credible deterrence could be explained as the ability to give unacceptable damage to India and survivability of Pakistan’s first strike capability in case of pre-emptive strike. This approach makes even more sense if the Indian no first use policy carries any weight and if it is possible for an adversary like Pakistan to believe in that. Pakistan cannot bring transparency to its nuclear capability due to several reasons. But Pakistan’s strategic institutions should be more transparent in terms of defining their threat perception from India. The ultimate decision to verify the credibility of threats from India and Pakistan’s credible response should be determine by the civilian authorities. I would appreciate your feedback on this.

  14. Bruce Reidal in his book in 2008 identified to Obama administration the only viable solution to avoid a worst case scenario in South Asia i.e. nuclear duel between Pakistan and India, is to promote economic partnership and bilateral trade at such proportion which stops two nation to engage militarily. Hence we saw rise of first Zardari and now Shareefs to full fill same agenda which due to multiple factors could not be achieved in true sense.
    US is a declining power and regional situation has changed a lot since 2008. Under the prevailing situation the only problem with our national power is our weak political class which is neither capable nor possess capacity to understand such issues. Ask any parliamentarian elements of national power and u will get funny answers in addition to blank faces.
    The author has tried to put forward US – India joint concerns and his nonsense solution to a utterly humble state of Pakistan. He must appreciate that We are connected to Islamic block countries in addition to rising power like China. There are grave problems with India like inequality and poverty which will one day dismember her. Concerns had been voiced about serious Indian problems by the same circles who find military control over nuclear capability and rising extremism in Pakistan a threat to regional peace. The nature of threat to India is much grave as compared to one against Pakistan. Before making his recommendations a close look could have helped him better.
    Pakistan only need sincere leadership to appropriately relate all elements of national power. The perceived inability in authors mind is one sided and planted. Sovereign countries DONOT trade their capabilities to get economic favours and from whom the arch rival. Pakistan economy has immense potential to achieve even double digit growth but we need to have leaders dedicated, honest and upright.

  15. @: Malik Khan
    You said that due to multiple factors, the progress on the normalization of relations between India and Pakistan could not be achieved. But you did not identify the factors that are responsible for the failure of this objective. The lack of willingness on Indian side to diplomatically engage Pakistan is one key factor. But for me, the even more important factor is the existence of militant groups in Pakistan and our inability or reluctance to neutralize these groups who have been responsible for carrying out major terrorist attacks in India that have hurt Pakistan more than India in terms of political cost. The Lahore declaration was the best ever outcome for Pakistan as we got everything we wanted but our army’s great vision of kargil not only embarrassed the country but neutralized the whole advantage that Pakistan achieved from Lahore Mou. Our “humble” state had been actively involved in proxy wars in both India and Afghanistan without realizing the future cost that our country is paying in the current situation. You blame the political leadership of Pakistan for its current demise but can you explain the performance of military rule that has governed the country for almost three decades. And even when the military is not in direct rule, Pakistan’s security and foreign policy is largely articulated by the military. And the major problem that we are facing today is our security problem. Out military government joined the War on terrorism (which was a rational decision) but failed to make an assessment of the backlash threats in coming years. I firmly believe that two main factors are responsible for the current demise of Pakistan; extra constitutional role of military and exploitation and use of religion in the country by the state.

  16. Very brave and capable assessment. I feel arms control measures that you highlight particularly trade off’s are worth discussing, some other aspects that we have discussed in our Track II dialogue are – no attack on NCA, ensuring recessed deterrence, bringing cruise missiles within the missile notification regime. Aspects like nuclear forensics that you discussed are also an interesting thought.
    On the role of nuclear weapons for Pakistani security, is a decision that the State has to make, but it needs to critically analyze the security off sets of the same. If war prevention is the aim that can be addressed mutually with India, but leveraging of nuclear weapons cannot be acceptable to wage unabated proxy war.
    Also needs to critically analyze China’s use of Pakistan as a proxy nuclear state in its deterrence role vis a vis India.

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