Theft Is Not the Only Threat Militants Pose to Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons

Earlier this month the Stimson Center issued a report by George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled The Non-Unitary Model and Deterrence Stability in South Asia. The daunting title notwithstanding, the paper is not only readable for the general reader, but spellbinding for nuclear-weapons specialists. Hint: “non-unitary” in this context means a nation which fails to demonstrate a “tight, coherent line of authority” over hostilities emanating from that state — in this instance, Pakistan. Though I haven’t quite finished reading the 22-page report, the excitement it generates has spurred me to get a jump start on posting about it.

To being with, it’s doubtful that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are at serious risk of being purloined by Islamist extremist militants. At this time, the greater nuclear risk to which it’s subject, as Perkovich sees it, is the confusion that India experiences when, for example, its parliament was attacked in New Delhi in 2001 and during the Mumbai 2008 assault. Thus the nuclear deterrence model, which, according to conventional thinking [this author, for one, has his reservations], worked for the United States and Russia may not be universally applicable. Why not? Perkovich writes:

… when it comes to functions as portentous and centrally controlled as initiating and managing warfare between nuclear-armed states, it is generally assumed that a tight, coherent line of authority operates approximately in ways consistent with the unitary model. If a state is not functioning as a unitary actor, or claims not to be when it is convenient, or is not perceived to be by those who seek to deter it, the implications for deterrence stability are profound.

Specifically …

When India is attacked by actors [Islamic extremists militants] emanating from Pakistan and with ties to Pakistani intelligence services, it naturally infers that such actions represent the intentions and policies of Pakistani authorities.

The result:

The projection of violence from Pakistan [by non-state actors] into India means that deterrence (through non-nuclear means as well as nuclear) has failed to prevent aggression. The task then remains for India to threaten or undertake punishment to compel Pakistan to redress the offense and to deter Pakistan from repeating it and from escalating the conflict. If Pakistan does not [seek] to detain and prosecute the perpetrators … pressure mounts for India to demonstrate through force that it will not be deterred from escalating the conflict in self-defense.

Perkovich then provides an example of the confusion that can ensue from attacks by Pakistani non-state actors on India.

For example, while India could perceive that the terrorist attacks it attributes to Pakistan signal Pakistani aggressiveness, Pakistani leaders (and the public) [Subtle point alert! -- RW] could perceive the initial terrorist attacks as a signal that the Pakistani state does not seek a wider conflict but is merely signaling resolve to press India to make political accommodations, in Kashmir or more broadly.

Trickier still …

This signaling process becomes all the more difficult and precarious if the Pakistani leaders who are presumed to be the authors of Pakistan’s signals and actions deny that the perpetrators of the conflict-triggering violence actually do manifest the policies of the state.

Why? Because …

Indian leaders then face a highly unstable dilemma. They could act as if the initial violence reflects the intentions of Pakistan’s chain of command, and send countervailing signals of retaliatory action according to normal models of deterrence, in which greater credibility and righteousness tend to reside with the defender.

This might only confuse Pakistan though. Perkovich explains.

But if Pakistani leaders [themselves] believe or claim that the perpetrators were not carrying out state policies, and India does escalate, Pakistani leaders will feel that India is the aggressor, significantly changing the dynamics of crisis and deterrence stability. “Normal” models of deterrence do not hold in such a situation.

In the end …

… disunity produces dangerous confusion and ambiguity that interfere in the management of deterrence. Who is sending signals through violence that is perceived to be emanating from the state and/or its territory? What is being signaled? … how does one manage deterrence and escalation processes in such a situation? In this latter scenario, disunity erodes the rationality on which deterrence is predicated.