Pak Army wants Zardari to keep the nuclear option open


ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s military leadership has advised President Asif Zardari to take back his statement made last month that his country would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict with India.

A well placed source in the government said the political leadership was briefed in detail by the military on the need for and use of the nuclear option. The president and the prime minister were reportedly told by the all-powerful men in khaki that Pakistan should not wait for India to strike first with nuclear weapons. Instead, Pakistan should decide when to use the weapons of mass destruction in a conflict with India. The generals reportedly told the political top brass that it makes sense for a country like Pakistan, with limited nuclear resources and limited ability to fight a conventional war against a much larger adversary, to retain the nuclear option. An ambiguous posture, they said, would keep the adversary in check.

The generals said Pakistan’s first-use option would offset India’s superiority in conventional weapons. On November 22, Zardari had surprised Indian observers and shocked the political establishment in Pakistan with his bold declaration abjuring the first use of nuclear weapons and calling upon India to work with his country on a region-specific treaty on nuclear use. Four days later, terrorists from Pakistan attacked Mumbai, negating all the progress made at improving ties. It remains a matter of conjecture when, if at all, Pakistani strategists would decide to pull the nuclear trigger. The army’s best bet is to deter India from a conventional war with the threat of possible first use of nuclear weapons.

Since the edifice of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence rests on this option, the strategists believe Islamabad’s nuclear weapons credibility had become suspect because of Zardari’s commitment that it would be used only in response to a nuclear attack. The strategists are of the view that using nuclear weapons after losing a conventional war would be suicidal. So they have asked the political leadership to allow using the nuclear option in the following eventualities: a) India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory (space threshold). b) India destroys a large part of Pakistan’s land or air forces (military threshold). c) India proceeds with the economic strangulation of Pakistan (economic threshold). d) India pushes Pakistan into political destabilisation or creates large-scale internal subversion (domestic threshold).

While in theory it is Pakistani contentious President Asif Zardari whose finger should be on the nation’s nuclear trigger, in practice, however, it is the all-powerful army leadership, which actually reins the National Command Authority (NCA) which has the final say in sanctioning any nuclear attack. Established in April 1999 by then COAS General Pervez Musharraf, the NCA is responsible for policy formulation and exercises employment and development control overall strategic nuclear forces and strategic organizations. The country’s nuclear arsenal is overseen by the National Command Authority that is headed by the president (Asif Zardari) and with the prime minister (Yousaf Raza Gillani) as its vice chairman. Key cabinet ministers and the heads of the army, navy and air force are also members of the NCA, which controls all aspects of the nuclear program, including deployment and, if ever necessary, the use of the weapons.

However, practically speaking, it is the Director General of the Strategic Planning Division (Lt Gen Khaled Ahmed Kidwai), who controls and guards the nuclear arsenal, under the supervision of the Army Chief (Ashfaq Pervez Kayani) with the assistance of the Pakistan army. Most analysts in Pakistan believe the will of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Gillani would hardly prevail when a decision about the use of the nuclear option is taken. They say Asif Zardari, being the president, has little or no control over the country’s nuclear arsenal as well as the armed forces and the Inter Services Intelligence because he is not General Musharraf, who was also the Army Chief besides being the all-powerful president of the country. Almost same is the case with Premier Gillani who is considered to be Manmohan Singh of Pakistan because he has already been reduced to a dummy Prime Minister by the presidency, which is actually calling the shots on his behalf.

Therefore, whatever is the formation of the National Command Authority, the fact remains that it is the Kayani-Kidwai duo and not the Zardfari-Gillani one which practically controls the country’s nuclear arsenal and is in a position to take a decision about pulling the nuclear trigger. General Kayani was made the Army Chief by General Musharraf after he was compelled to quit in August 2007 following his party’s debacle in the general elections. And General Kidwai too was appointed the director general of the Strategic Planning Division by none other than Musharraf.

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