More on the India Nuke Deal

| Tue Mar. 7, 2006 4:15 PM EST

Fred Kaplan gets at some of the problems with the Bush administration's recent nuclear deal with India. Among other worries, India could start building fast-breeder reactors—which can be used to build lots and lots of plutonium bombs—inside its unmonitored military facilities. The whole thing also undermines the Non-Proliferation Treaty: after all, if the U.S. can offer India nuclear technology without requiring the latter to disarm (or even, more weakly, put a moratorium on new weapons), what's to stop Russia and China from offering, say, Pakistan or Iran a similar deal?

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But there's another—and, I think, far more serious—problem here. A few weeks ago in the New Yorker, Steve Coll had a scary piece of reporting about how in December of 2001, after Kashmiri jihadis allegedly tried to blow up the Parliament House in New Delhi, India and Pakistan came very close to war. Very close. And because neither country could tell how serious the other side was about deterrence and using its nukes, the world came closer to seeing a real-life nuclear exchange than at any time since 1962. For instance:

At a round-table discussion in London, a Pakistani general involved with his country's nuclear program discussed the crisis with Indian civilian participants. "They said, 'We can live with losing Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta, but we will wipe out Pakistan,'" the general recalled. "I said, 'That's easier said than done. Losing Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay, it would be very difficult for India to survive.'"

Such talk unnerved British and American officials, and in late May Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, called Armitage, asking him to visit Islamabad and New Delhi; he was hoping that a new round of diplomacy might at least slow down India's war planners. Armitage agreed, and he invited analysts from the State Department's intelligence and regional bureaus to his office. He asked for a show of hands: "How many think we're going to war?" Everybody's hand went up but his.

(Indeed, the State Department took the threat so seriously that it evacuated its diplomats from the region—the first time it had ever done so.) Now the standoff was resolved, at least in Coll's telling, because Colin Powell and Richard Armitage did a deft job of mediating between the two sides. That's partly because they could be seen as somewhat impartial mediators—among other things, relations between the United States and Pakistan were warming in late 2001. But because the Bush administration has cozied up to India of late, Pakistan's generals now have "an absolute certainty that the U.S. is not an honest broker," one Defense Department official told Coll.

It's hard to tell whether the nuclear crisis in late 2001 has scared Pakistani and Indian leaders into bouts of moderation—the two countries have warmed slightly towards each other of late. But another major attack by Pakistani groups could easily provoke a war—or at the very least another round of brinksmanship. (Some jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed seem to have this very goal in mind.) And the next time, the United States might not be able to calm everyone down.

War would be disastrous for all the obvious reasons, but even having Pakistan and India get close to war would be extremely dangerous from a global security perspective. As Coll reports, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are pretty well guarded until they're put on alert and dispersed in preparation for battle. When that happens, the chances that a nuclear weapon could fall into the wrong hands will suddenly go up significantly. (And it won't be known when that happens—it's not even known to what extent Pakistan's arsenal was dispersed in late 2001.)

A few years ago in the Atlantic, Graham Allison explained why we should all be terrified of this scenario—he was also worried about a possible coup in Pakistan, which could again lead to nuclear weapons falling in the wrong hands—and suggested that as a solution, the U.S. should provide technological safeguards to Pakistan, such as bomb locks known as Permissive Action Links that would ensure that only Gen. Perez Musharraf could activate the weapons. It seemed like a sound idea, but Coll describes why Pakistan never accepted:

Colin Powell first raised the possibility of American assistance with Musharraf [on nuclear safeguards] in the autumn of 2001, but Musharraf rejected the idea; the Pakistani side "just said no," the former Bush Administration official recalled. The Pakistanis said they "had it all under control themselves."

Many of Pakistan's ruling generals fear that, given an opportunity, the United States might stand by as India attempted to preëmptively destroy Pakistan's nuclear-weapons facilities. In the view of Musharraf and his senior generals, Feroz Khan told me, "the United States is not hostile to Pakistan, but they do know that the U.S. was inimical to the Pakistani program from the beginning, so they would not assume any sympathy" if India attacked. Pakistan's military has gone to great lengths to keep the operational details of its nuclear-weapons systems secret, several well-placed American officials told me. To accept U.S. nuclear-security assistance, the generals would have to be convinced that the aid would not be used to collect intelligence or undermine Pakistan's control of its nuclear arsenal.

It's not an entirely unreasonable fear, really, and the United States' recent deal with India will very likely make Pakistan's generals even less likely to accept assistance anytime in the near future. And that makes nuclear proliferation more likely. Now perhaps it really is in our best interests to make a long-term strategic alliance with India—so that they can help us "contain China" or whatever nonsense is the rationale here—but it's easy to see the problems here.