Monday, June 08, 2009

Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

We all like to snigger, shake our heads in amazement and furiously post blogs whenever a foreign newspaper publishes something ignorant about Pakistan. It is easy to laugh at stories that have a hard-on for Facebook users fighting militants in their own way (that way would be joining a Taliban sux group right before taking the Which Lost Character Are You quiz; guilty as charged on both counts), or using an anecdote from a Karachi Grammar School student, whose only interaction with the Taliban was when he saw Osama after it won an Oscar, to prove that the militants are about to overrun the city.

When Bruce Riedel catches the hyperbole flu, laughter is not an option. He is a scholar at the Brookings Institute (which is still hilariously referred to as liberal) and has been a major architect of Barack Obama’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, chairing an interagency review of US tactics in the region that is condescendingly referred to as “Af-Pak.” His op-ed on Pakistan, which would feel at home with the editorial policy of every major US newspaper, was published in the Wall Street Journal last week. If this article is an indication of what he whispered in Obama’s ears, we should all be very frightened.

The main focus of his piece is nuclear weapons, that hobbyhorse of alarmists at every US think tank and media organization. As is my wont, I’m going to discuss it one point at a time.

He begins with a familiar trope:

The Pakistani army, backed by attack helicopters, is fighting intense gun battles in the Swat valley 60 miles outside the capital of Islamabad with Islamic extremists.

Every know-nothing media outlet has used this 60-miles-from-Islamabad description to convey the impression that the capital has been besieged by the Taliban and it is only a matter of time before they took over the machinery of the state. That’s just not true. Even if the Taliban were suicidal enough to stage an armed assault on Islamabad, the army would just saunter over from Rawalpindi and repel them. Islamabad isn’t Waziristan. You can’t fight a guerilla war by hiding in the DVD shops in Jinnah Supermarket.

The fighting has cast a spotlight on the shaky security of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal—the fastest growing arsenal in the world.

The fastest growing arsenal in the world aside is needless fear-mongering. If the Taliban control Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal it doesn’t matter if they have access to fifty nuclear weapons or sixty; it’ll be time to panic. But point taken: Pakistan’s nukes are not secure.

Today the arsenal is under the control of its military leaders; it is well protected, concealed and dispersed.

Oh, so they are secure. No worries, then.

But if the country fell into the wrong hands—those of the militant Islamic jihadists and al Qaeda—so would the arsenal.

Let’s start worrying again. Let’s also define what you mean by the country falling into the wrong hands. Does it mean the Taliban extending their control to further areas of Pakistan (which is admittedly very worrisome) or does it mean they have either defeated or converted to their cause one of the largest armies in the world? The latter is not going to happen; the former is far more realistic, which however awful it would be for the country, would not affect the security of the nuclear weapons.

The danger of Pakistan becoming a jihadist state is real. Just before her murder in December 2007, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said she believed al Qaeda would be marching on Islamabad in two years.

Benazir said a lot of things that she hoped the Americans were foolish enough to believe so that they would get her back to Pakistan and into power. Seems she was right.

Increasing calls to “secure” the country’s nuclear weapons by force are far from productive—in fact, it’s making serious work with Pakistan more difficult.

Thanks for that. It’s the first sensible thing you’ve said.

Then there’s a lot of blather and arm-chair psychoanalysis of how and why Pakistan developed its nuclear capability and some reasonable recommendations about US policy towards Pakistan.

Every newspaper has run an op-ed about Pakistan’s nukes but I chose to pick on Riedel because he represents the thinking at the highest levels of the Obama administration.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure. The Taliban is not about to overthrow the government. Go back to scouting Facebook and find evidence that we don’t like militancy. Then stop writing hysterical op-eds.


pat1755 said...

Very informative, thanks. Cross-posted to my LJ, with credit.

Kalsoom said...

Just went to an event where Riedel spoke, and while he did say he thought the threat of Pakistan becoming a jihadist state was very "real," (at which I point I thought, wtf), he did say that that threat is neither imminent nor is it a very likely scenario. In the case that Pakistan is near collapse, he did say that Pakistan's nukes are pretty well-secured underground (altho he also stated the nuclear arsenal is "shaky" so not sure where he was going).

My take - Analysts in Washington like to crow about the "worst case scenario," and taken at face value, those assertions read that our nukes will inevitably fall into the hands of militants. However, they also admit that these scenarios are not v likely. My question is, why say it at all? Why not focus on why this is NOT imminent? Analysts, as much as the Western media, prefer to concentrate on the negative rather than the positive, and therefore inevitably further polarized perceptions of Pakistan.

A friend of mine who works on these issues actually contributed a piece to my blog on why there is NO red button in Pakistan. She goes through assertions by Washington scholars and breaks down why they're not true:

supe said...

Hysteria is the flippin' word brotha!

It's obvious that whoever this guy is, is just looking at generating some kind of hype /hysteria, by way of his tacky article.

Thanks Kalsoom for confirming he is confused and contradicting himself.

I would otherwise have ignored such an article as crappy media speculation but I'm glad it's being ripped to shreds here, Good work Bubs.
Wall Street Journal sounds like a credible news resource (is it?), they shouldn't think they're able to get away with half-assed BS like this.

My reasons for disagreement are:

1) The timing of this article is off, the writer's not time-sensitive at all.

- Taliban hotspots like Swat are 'close to being recovered' and there are still those millions of evacuees who are waiting to return home, to take into context.

2) The Pakistan Army is proving capable enough of wiping out the Taliban, without needing USA's bad boys muscling their way in and taking over. (Ofc, US dollars may be helping there, but that's an entirely different subject.)
- Maybe this writer would like for Pakistan to be invaded 'officially' by the US military, so he can rest easy at night?

I think the latter is pretty obvious, judging by this article.
I, like many others, sincerely hope Pakistan doesn't become the next Iraq or Afghanistan and that this current operation proves successful, eradicating the need for any further drastic measures.

Lastly, this is something that I personally find extremely irritating: The word 'Islamist'. What the f--k is an ISLAMist!? Haven't the Taliban proved over and over that they're merely power hungry politicians?
Besides what kind of Muslims do the kind of things they have done?
Detonating bombs in mosques filled with people during Friday prayers was just the icing on the cake.

Heard today that they got their asses thoroughly whipped by a group of about 500 local villagers. Hah!

I recommend this old fart Riedel have himself a nice cup of Horlicks at night, he'll sleep easier.

supe said...

Plus, with regards to the the main subject here; the nuclear arms, you've totally said it all.

pat1755 said...

Oh, supe. The Wall Street Journal is ultra credible, as much as some of us would wish otherwise...

bubs said...

Kalsoom: Thanks for the link. Riedel clearly sounds contradictory. I wonder how much of the bad analysis coming from Washington is a desire to market oneself. Writing in apocalyptic terms will always help one get published.

Supe: The Wall Street Journal has some of the best reporting and worst opinion.

Arif said...

The world has very good reason to feel scared about Pakistan's nuclear weapons and their safety. This is a highly unstable country, where administrative machinery has all but failed. Why the duck should everyone NOT be concerned? Has Pakistan not been at the center of proliferation of nuclear technology around the world? Did Pakistani nuclear scientists not have multiple meetings with Osama and other Al Qaeda people about how to make a dirty bomb? Has the Pakistani army not trained and supported violent extremists to carry out terrorist acts within and outside Pakistan? The Pakistan army for all practical purposes continues the double game its been playing since 9/11. It all well for Pakistani's to have learn't how to live in an unstable and dangerous environment, but its a bit rich to expect others to do the same -and to berate them when they speak out. There are very good reasons for why the world should not trust Pakistan as long as the army maintains its stranglehold over the country. And for those who you taking great umbrage at Riedel - Pakistan is indeed furiously expanding its nuclear arsenal...what for? Probably, to increase its bargaining position as it blackmails the world or maybe to hand some over to that heart of darkness, Saudi Arabia. Of course, no one here or elsewhere ever likes to talk of Wahabi imperialism or the poison they have injected into our society through their surrogate, the Pakistan army.

Arif said...

...also, lets not please talk about how the Taliban are merely an extension of the pernicious ideology the Pakistan army has nurtured and forced down the throats of Pakistani's over the last 30 years, with money and guidance from their Wahabi masters. No, lets instead celebrate the glorious Pakistan army and its victory over the local barbarians (never mind that they are creations of the army and well, pretty much continue to be). Damn right, screw these bloody foreigners who don't molly coddle us!

Arif said...

Kalsoom: news flash! Pakistan has been on the road to becoming a Jehadi state since 1979.

Ahsan said...


I will try my best to ignore your tone and simply respond to some of the issues you have raised in as neutral a way as possible.

First, you seem to be conflating two very different propositions in (a) the Pakistani military establishment engaging in nuclear proliferation in the 90s and 00s, and (b) the Taliban acquiring a nuclear capability. The article, and Bubs' subsequent criticism, centered on (b). No one in their right mind thinks that the Army is going to hand over a nuclear device to the Taliban. So your argument against Bubs' point on (b) basically boils down to (a) having happened before, but that is purely irrelevant for the matter at hand.

Second, in answer to your question "Has Pakistan not been at the center of nuclear proliferation around the world?", the answer is no, not really. It has been the center of nuclear proliferation for the last decade or so, but nuclear technology has existed for far longer than that. Here is a comprehensive list of sensitive nuclear technology transfers from one state to another:

1. USSR to China (1958-1960)
2. France to Israel (1959-65)
3. France to Japan (1971-4)
4. France to Pakistan (1974-82)
5. France to Taiwan (1975)
6. Italy to Iraq (1976-8)
7. Germany to Brazil (1979-94)
8. France to Egypt (1980-2)
9. China to Pakistan (1981-3, 1984-6)
10. China to Iran (1984, 1987, 1989, 1995)
11. China to Algeria (1986-91)
12. Pakistan to Iran (1987-95)
13. Pakistan to Libya (1997-2001)
14. Pakistan to North Korea (1997-2002)

Assistance in all cases has ranged from weapons designs, to building enrichment facilities to fuel processing technology to reactors to labs. This may come as a shock to you, but countries do this sort of thing all the time, or at least have done so in the past. For more on this, you can read Matthew Kroenig's piece in the February 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review titled "Exporting the Bomb: Why States Provide Sensitive Nuclear Assistance". It is available for free on his website, which is

I agree with your points concerning the long-term foolishness of the military establishment's strategy in nurturing and supporting militants, which have now come home to roost. I also agree that while many Pakistanis are quick to castigate American influence on our politics, they seem more reluctant to criticize Saudi influence, which has been far more pernicious in my view.

karachi khatmal said...

after an evening of being feted by michella and barack at the white house, bruce riedel returns to his swanky pad, where good friend haqqani has already delivered a lady friend for the night. after having burqa sex with her, he is just about to doze off when he reads a google alert on his name on a random pakistani blog. quickly he clicks on the link, and lies there enraged, snapping his ballpoint pens between the thighs of the opulent woman by his side.

with a flash he jumps up, still in the nude, and composes a brilliant, stunning response to those blathering idiots. but just when is about to post, he wonders, if i am going to be a troll, let's do this the right way baby...

too proud to post as anonymous, he chooses instead to use his karachi stockbroker's first name - arif...