EDITORIAL: Nuclear risks and nuclear realities

Nuclear risks and nuclear realities

General Musharraf today tossed a bone to his lapdogs in Washington — a promise of elections — and the White House wagged its tail and quickly applauded what it sees as “a good thing” — even while Pakistan’s dictator continued to bludgeon his political opponents. Three Pakistani politicians and a union leader were charged with treason today for making anti-government speeches and now face possible death sentences and in an attempt to thwart a protest rally, 500 members of Benazir Bhutto’s opposition party were arrested.

Having been a steady recipient of US aid — his military receives $100 million monthly in direct cash transfers which Musharraf can use however he pleases — the general is unlikely to be moved by threats that he might not be rewarded with any more F-16s.

Musharraf’s power and the White House’s impotence was further reinforced by the image of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte appearing on Capitol Hill in defense of Bush’s “indispensable” ally. “No country has done more in inflicting damage on the Taliban,” Negroponte said, yet in a little noticed development, it seems possible that even while Musharraf was instituting martial law in Pakistan and releasing Taliban prisoners, in Afghanistan Pakistan’s intelligence services might have had a role in the assassination of one of the Taliban’s most serious opponents. “The killing of Sayed Mustafa Kazimi, the 45-year-old Hazara Shi’ite leader from Parwan province of Afghanistan, to the northwest of Kabul, bears all the hallmark of a political assassination,” writes M K Bhadrakumar in Asia Times. He continues:

Evidently, those who plotted his assassination had a grand design. The Taliban lack the political sophistication to work with such foresight and planning. Of course, the Taliban have an old feud with the Hazara Shi’ites dating to the murder of Mazari in March 1995, when the Taliban, already approaching Kabul, entrapped him after inviting him for peace talks. He was tortured and murdered before his body was thrown out of a helicopter somewhere near Ghazni.

Observers of the Afghan scene may have forgotten the incident, but what comes readily to mind is that the suspicion still lingers that Mazari’s murder was the handiwork of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The finger of suspicion must once again turn to the ISI over Kazimi’s killing, which raises the issue of what would be gained by removing him from the political landscape.

First, he comes from a region of Afghanistan which is very sensitive. Those who know the Afghan chessboard would acknowledge the supreme importance of controlling the provinces of Baghlan and Parwan. They form the gateway to the northern Amu Darya region, the Panjshir Valley to the east and the central Hazarajat region respectively.

Control of the mountain passes to the west of Baghlan was bitterly contested between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The hub was extremely important strategically. In political terms, it is possible to say that without exercising control of the hub, there can be no effective unity between the non-Pashtun ethnic groups of Tajiks and Hazaras (and even the Uzbekis).

Baghlan connects the predominantly Tajik areas with the Hazarajat region and is also on the main communication line between Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif in the Amu Darya region. Baghlan itself is a mosaic where Pushtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras have traditionally vied for influence and control.

Kazimi hailed from Parwan and did much of his political work in his early years in Baghlan province, where he was quite popular. There is no better way of creating volatility, if not mayhem, in that sensitive region than through a political assassination. The ISI has used targeted political assassinations with devastating effect in Afghanistan many a time at critical junctures on the battlefield.

As everyone knows, Washington can only focus its attention on one thing at a time and with all eyes now on Pakistan, opportunities for reckless maneuvers present themselves elsewhere. Yet there are compelling reasons why Pakistan now looks like the most dangerous country in the world. Washington’s confidence in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is largely invested in its confidence in one man: Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, head of the special branch of the military known as the Strategic Plans Division in charge of operations and security. Kidwai represents what one former State Department official describes a the only “safe box within Pakistan’s army.” Irrespective of Kidwai’s close ties to U.S. military officials, the inherent vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has long been understood.

In October 2001, nuclear weapons expert, David Albright wrote:

Several observers have suggested that if Pakistan suffers a coup by forces hostile to the United States, the US military should be ready to provide security over the nuclear weapons (or even to take the weapons out of Pakistan entirely) without the permission of the Pakistani authorities.13 Others have raised the possibility of asking President Musharraf to allow the United States or China to take possession of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons during a coup.

Although such responses appear possible in theory, their implementation could be extremely difficult and dangerous. A U.S. military action to seize or cripple Pakistan’s strategic nuclear assets may encourage India to take similar action, in essence to finish the job. Even if India does nothing, a new Pakistani government may launch any remaining nuclear weapons at U.S. forces or against India.

In addition, removing the nuclear weapons would not be enough. The new government would inherit the facilities to make nuclear weapons. Extensive bombing would thus be required at several nuclear sites, including the relatively large Khushab reactor and New Labs reprocessing plant. These types of attacks risk the release of a large amount of radiation if they are to ensure that the facility is not relatively quickly restored to operation.

No wonder Washington is now in a state of paralysis. The administration’s fears will only be reinforced as critics such as Senator Biden compares Pakistan to Iran when in 1979 it shook off its own US-backed dictator.

As for present-day Iran, President Ahmadinejad’s announcement that Iran has 3,000 working uranium-enriching centrifuges is leading to renewed fears that Israel might respond by bombing the country’s nuclear facilities. In a familiar pattern, this warning was reported in The Times and then echoed around the Israeli press. Israel’s Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is also a former defense minister and IDF chief of General Staff, told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations in New York, “Iran’s nuclear program is proceeding like an express train. The diplomatic efforts to thwart Iran are like a slow train. If we cannot derail the Iranian train from the tracks, we are on the verge of a nuclear era that will totally alter the regional reality.” Yet the longer the crisis in Pakistan continues, the more widely it will be recognized that, as Ariel Sharon might have put, the nuclear realities on the ground are more significant than those that lie beyond the horizon.

Indeed, as one observer astutely notes:

An Iranian-instigated chemical or biological attack against Israel or the United States has been within the capability of the Iranian regime for at least a decade, and yet they have not launched one. Nor have the Iranians committed 9/11-style terrorist spectaculars against the U.S. homeland despite the relative ease and low cost of such attacks.

All this suggests that Iran understands, and respects, the limits of its aggression. Despite the end times rhetoric issuing forth from its demagogic president, the country has assiduously avoided acts that would invite a massive military retaliation. This is not indicative of a nation longing for a nuclear conflagration.

If Washington is to develop a new way of approaching Iran, the substance of one such means of engagement was outlined in Congress yesterday by Flynt Leverett. Testifying to the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Leverett said:

…when one asks Iranian diplomats, academics and officials what is required from the United States to condition a fundamental improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, these Iranian interlocutors routinely talk about American acceptance of the Islamic Republic and recognition of a legitimate Iranian role in the region—and it is precisely American acceptance of the Islamic Republic and recognition of legitimate Iranian interests that is the core of what I describe as a “security guarantee”.

If in the eyes of President Bush, Pakistan’s military dictator can appear “indispensable,” is Iran’s desire for recognition of its own legitimacy really such a tall order? For this or any future administration to undergo such a shift in its alignments it needs to put aside the prism through which only strategic threats and assets can be seen and recognize that it is dealing with people and with nations. America’s interests can ultimately only be served by respecting the interests of others.

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