U.S. Central Commander Expects Nuclear Restraint From Pakistan

By Elaine M. Grossman
Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON – Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, said late last month he is confident Pakistan would avoid ratcheting up tensions in its nuclear weapons standoff with India, despite some troubling signs (see GSN, June 25).

The top commander’s remarks, offered in an exclusive July 27 interview with Global Security Newswire, come as the government of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf appears to be moving to dramatically increase the nation’s nuclear weapons production capacity.

At the same time, Pakistan is renewing its condemnation of a pact the Bush administration has struck that promises U.S. aid for India’s nuclear energy program. The agreement, which has not yet been approved by either nation’s legislature, would grant New Delhi access to sensitive U.S. nuclear technologies in exchange for submitting its civilian nuclear reactors to international oversight (see GSN, Aug.3).

The deal’s omission of any restrictions on India’s military nuclear production facilities has some Pakistani leaders fuming. In the latest statement on the matter, the Pakistani body that controls the nation’s nuclear weapons hinted a substantial response is in the making.

“The U.S.-India nuclear agreement would have implications on strategic stability [in the region],” said Pakistan’s “nuclear command authority,” as Reuters reported Thursday from Islamabad.

However, the top U.S. officer in the region remains unfazed.

“I think that [the Pakistanis] would recognize that it is not in their best interest to end up increasing tensions with India, particularly in the business of nuclear weapons,” said Fallon, who assumed the post at Central Command in March. “I feel very confident that the leadership of both countries recognize this is not a place they want to go. And they have other, higher priorities than this.”

For Musharraf, higher priorities might include a mounting military operation against radical Islamists in the largely ungoverned western frontier, according to the admiral. Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders also are believed to be in hiding in North Waziristan province, along the border with Afghanistan.

During a June meeting in Islamabad, Fallon says he urged Musharraf to consider taking steps aimed at further easing tensions with India.

“If the [Pakistani] army’s still very concerned about a strategic threat from India, they’re going to be loathe to want to get very involved in anything at their back door,” in terms of ridding militants and terrorists from the lawless tribal areas, Fallon said.

In July, the Pakistani leader is believed to have shifted at least 20,000 troops from the Punjab region away from the Indian border, said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has written extensively about militant Islam. An estimated half-million or more Pakistani forces patrol the boundary with India.

Following a wave of terrorist bombings, the occupation of Islamabad’s Red Mosque by student militants and mounting political pressure from Washington, Musharraf in July deployed two additional brigades to the tribal northwest, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

Yet it appears the Pakistani military also continues to retain a significant focus on its nuclear competition with India.

Satellite photographs of construction at the Khushab nuclear site appear to show a partially completed heavy-water reactor that independent analysts say might be capable of producing enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year. That would constitute a 20-fold increase in Pakistan’s production capacity.

The new plutonium production reactor, the country’s third, could also allow the production of a new generation of lighter and more powerful nuclear weapons, according to experts.

“I think the [U.S.-Indian] deal confirms Pakistani military assumptions that India is going to grow its nuclear arsenal at an increased pace,” Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, told GSN today. “It appears, at least to me, that we have the makings of a more serious … arms competition.”

Critics say U.S. assistance for India’s nuclear energy program could allow the South Asian nation to redirect domestic fissile material to its weapons production program while using foreign supplies for the nation’s energy needs.

With Musharraf’s focus already shifting to battling extremists, Fallon said he is “not particularly concerned” that the Pakistani leader would heighten nuclear tensions with India.

“[Both] governments know there is too much at stake,” Fallon said. “They’re taking enough steps in the right direction that I think the leaders both recognize the incredibly negative aspects of a renewed arms race. That’s not their priority.”

The two neighbors have undertaken a number of confidence-building measures in recent years, including a nuclear risk reduction pact signed in February (see GSN, Feb. 21). Pakistan also has proposed a “strategic restraint regime” to curb deployment of both nuclear and conventional weapons throughout South Asia, though India has not embraced that idea (see GSN, Aug. 23, 2006).

Fallon explained the Pakistani denunciations of the new U.S.-Indian accord as something to be expected from a multidimensional culture facing an array of competing threats.

“It’s a complex society and you’re always hedging,” he said.

Pakistan conducted its first nuclear weapons test in 1998 just two weeks after India conducted its first tests since 1974. Each nation is now believed to have between 30 and 50 nuclear weapons.

As neither nation has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, few of their nuclear facilities have been subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

[Reprinted by permission of National Journal Group. This article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2007, National Journal Group. For more information and exclusive news, go to http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org or http://www.nationaljournal.com.]

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