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Dubious gains at the nuclear security summit

19 April, 2010

By Asif Ezdi

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At his meeting with the Pakistani newsmen in Washington at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit, Gilani was jubilant. He said his visit had by and large been “very successful”. Not a single head of state or government had raised concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Obama himself had said that Pakistan’s nuclear programme was in safe hands. “President Obama is totally convinced that our command and control system is undoubtedly effective. We could not have expected more,” Gilani exulted. The confidence shown by the international community in the safety of Pakistan’s controls over its nuclear assets had given increased legitimacy to the country’s nuclear programme. This was a great victory for Pakistan.

Even after making allowance for the fact that the government is under an occupational compulsion to put a positive spin on every situation, Gilani’s exuberance was quite out of place. Two days earlier, Foreign Minister Qureshi had said that Obama had given the assurance that Washington had no “sinister designs” towards Pakistan’s nuclear programme. For Pakistan to believe these assurances, if they were given, would be highly irresponsible.

It is an open secret that Washington harbours doubts about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and stock of weapons-grade material. The US has provided technical assistance to Pakistan to lessen that risk. The source of that danger, as Washington sees it, lies not so much in inadequate arrangements to guard our nuclear programme physically but in the possibility that the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment could be infiltrated by Al Qaeda sympathisers. Washington has therefore prepared plans to seize and destroy Pakistan’s nuclear assets in certain eventualities. One of those contingencies, but probably not the only one, is an imminent danger of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or material falling into the hands of non-state entities like the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. Those plans exist and have not been given up, no matter what Obama told Gilani. In fact, they are being refined all the time and constantly updated with the latest intelligence. Should Washington decide at any time to act on these plans, it will not be stopped by any promises of good behaviour that Obama might have made to Gilani. The best protection of our nuclear assets would be to keep the American intelligence guessing about their location.

In public and in his meeting with Gilani, Obama refrained from raising questions about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. At his press conference following the summit, Obama said there had actually been progress over the last several years with respect to Pakistan’s nuclear security issues and expressed confidence about the security “around” Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programmes. But that did not mean that there were no improvements to be made. Obama tempered his remarks by adding that every country had to take better steps to secure nuclear material.

But Obama has also been very clear about his views on the main source of the nuclear security threat. Less than an hour before his meeting with Gilani, Obama painted a dire scenario of nuclear terrorism from Al Qaeda which, as the US officials never tire of pointing out, is based in the “border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The single biggest threat to the US security, Obama declared, may it be short-term, medium-term or long-term, came from the possibility of a terrorist organisation obtaining a nuclear weapon. That was something that could change the security landscape of the US and around the world for years to come. Al Qaeda, he said, was trying to secure nuclear weapons and it had no compunction about using them. The political, economic and security ramifications of such a detonation would be devastating.

Gilani’s claim that Obama was “totally convinced” about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear programme therefore does not quite accord with the US policy on the issue. That policy has not changed after the summit. Nevertheless, a certain degree of satisfaction is in order at the fact that the Indian plan to use the conference to censure Pakistan for being a “proliferator” and for lacking the ability to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists did not materialise. One Indian columnist wrote with obvious relish before the summit that some of the focus at the summit was indirectly likely to be on Pakistan and “watching Islamabad squirm is always satisfying.”

When that pleasure was denied, Manmohan Singh tried to put the best face forward. He expressed gratification that the international community was finally taking note of India’s long-held concerns about the activities of nuclear traffickers and about nuclear terrorism. Earlier the world used to listen to India but now it had recognised that these were genuine concerns. That, he said, was a matter of some satisfaction for India.

As another proof of India’s prescience, Manmohan Singh recalled Rajiv Gandhi’s plan for global nuclear disarmament presented in 1988, whose wisdom the world was now belatedly recognising. India’s earlier calls for a world free from nuclear weapons had not been heeded, Manmohan Singh lamented, but today the world was veering around to the vision India had put forward.

Gilani’s assertion that the legitimacy of Pakistan’s nuclear programme has been enhanced by our participation at the summit reflects a basic flaw in approach. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent is completely legal because it is not in violation of the country’s obligations with respect to any treaty or international law. Pakistan does not need to “legitimise” it or strive for the recognition of its status as a nuclear-weapon state, certainly not by seeking endorsement from the US or any other country.

What we must do instead is to use to the full our diplomatic leverage to get access to civil nuclear technology as a solution to our growing energy deficit. Gilani did well to take up the issue at the summit. But it seems he did not raise it directly in his meeting with Obama. Gilani has to explain why he shied away from talking to the US president on such an important matter.

Fortunately, Gilani did not give in to Obama’s demand that Pakistan give up its opposition to the commencement of negotiations on a treaty to halt the production of weapons-grade nuclear material. The pressure on Pakistan by the US and the international community to change this stance will mount in the coming weeks and months. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is planning a meeting of world leaders to push for the treaty. If Pakistan links negotiations on the treaty with the question of access to civilian nuclear technology, the international community could be made to rethink its double standards on the issue.

If the success of Pakistan’s nuclear diplomacy at the summit has been overstated, the gains of Gilani’s handshake diplomacy at his two meetings (or non-meetings, to be accurate) with Manmohan are even more dubious. For Gilani to have taken the initiative for one such encounter was probably right and necessary. But doing it twice devalued the significance of the gesture.

Manmohan tried to belittle the generosity of spirit behind Gilani’s initiative of greeting the Indian prime minister. As Manmohan put it at a press conference, he had “run into” Gilani twice. They had exchanged pleasantries and he had complimented the Pakistan prime minister on the passage of the constitution amendment bill but there was no serious discussion. Manmohan also repeated Delhi’s stance on the resumption of a composite dialogue: if Pakistan took credible steps to bring the perpetrators of the Bombay attacks to book, India would be happy to begin talks on all issues.

At Yekaterinburg last year, Manmohan publicly rebuked Zardari to his face before running cameras. At Washington, the Indian prime minister again chided his Pakistani interlocutor, but this time at a solo news conference. After these two incidents, Manmohan needs to be taught a lesson in the elementary etiquette of summit diplomacy. At the very least, Pakistan should leave it to the Indian side to seek a meeting with Gilani at the upcoming SAARC summit in Bhutan. In any case, they need it more than we do.

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