The security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal received an endorsement this week from a most unlikely yet highly credible source: Indian National Security Adviser K. R. Narayanan. The statements should go a long ways towards allaying some of the mounting concern and hyperbole regarding Pakistan's nuclear arms. So far, Narayanan's comments have gone largely unnoticed in the United States; but should they gain more attention, they could have an impact on the U.S. election debate. Presidential candidates have increasingly focused on U.S. policy towards Pakistan, with some suggesting a potential need for U.S. military action in that country and others positing that a reduction of U.S. support for President Musharraf could send nuclear weapons into the embrace of Islamic extremists.
While much of the world has a wary eye on Pakistan's nuclear weapons, India is the most interested party, since it is the most likely target of a renegade Pakistani attack. The question then remains: Why would a high-ranking Indian official endorse Pakistani safeguards, when India would seem to benefit from the opprobrium and international pressure currently being brought to bear on its long-time rival? Narayanan has also made other eyebrow-raising forays into Pakistani politics: He recently expressed a grudging respect for Musharraf; his confidence in Pakistan's new army chief, Ashfaq Kayani; and his lack of enthusiasm for former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
On Saturday on a television broadcast, Narayanan said, "It is extremely difficult for any outside element just walking away with a readymade nuclear device." He said that even as national security adviser, he could not activate such a device on his own. "I would therefore say [the Pakistani nuclear arsenal] is relatively safe or I would say it is largely safe", he said. The U.S. government has been prompted to pay "very close attention" to Pakistan's nuclear security and "they are quite satisfied with the checks and balances, which are adequate", he added.
Narayanan's statements might have been interpreted as a sign that India supports a democratic process in Pakistan and rejects the idea that only Musharraf stands between the country's nuclear weapons and the jihadis. But Narayanan also recently endorsed Musharraf and his performance. "I must say there is a certain amount of grudging respect for the manner in which President Musharraf has managed to overcome his previous struggles. He's moved from a military president to a civilian president. He's managed to see there is no boycott to the [upcoming parliamentary] elections . . . At least, definitely in the short term, it should be possible [for him to succeed]. If he manages to do so in the long term then, of course, he's a very able person" he said.
Regarding Pakistan's Army chief Kayani-who assumed the post in wake of Musharraf's recent relinquishing of that position-Narayanan said, "The soldiers who know him think he's a loyal individual. And that is what makes people think the relationship between the civilian President Musharraf and the army chief will be smooth, at least in the short term."
Narayanan was sober about former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's prospects for shutting down terrorist camps. "One has to go by what she did [during her tenure] in the 90s, so one is skeptical. Her track record is not necessarily something that would make us believe that she will follow to the letter and the spirit of what she has said." He added, "But let me point out that even if she wishes to do so, the single most important entity in Pakistan remains the army and the ISI and I find it extremely difficult to believe that Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, if she becomes that, will have a free hand in doing all the things that she wishes to do."
Just what prompted Narayanan to vouch for the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and his support of Musharraf's rule is unknowable. But according to Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, he may have become alarmed by some of the policy prescriptions being recommended in the United States recently, vis-à-vis Pakistan. "The last thing the Indians want to see is for things to get out of control", said Korb. "The Indians are saying, ‘we're the ones in the neighborhood, and we don't want an overreaction'", he added. Narayanan was probably attempting to prevent the instability in Pakistan from being used as a pretext for an U.S. invasion there, said Korb. His comments may have been chiefly geared for consumption in the United States, although they have yet to resonate here.
Of the main presidential candidates, Governor Michael Huckabee has taken the most confrontational stance regarding Pakistan. In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Huckabee said, "Rather than wait for the next strike, I prefer to cut to the chase by going after al Qaeda's safe havens in Pakistan. As commander in chief, the U.S. president must balance threats and risks in calculating how best to protect the American people. We are living on borrowed time. The threat of an attack on us is far graver than the risk that a quick and limited strike against al Qaeda would bring extremists to power in Pakistan." Huckabee's position is more hawkish than that of Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), who generated a good deal of attention and criticism after declaring that he would potentially use military action in Pakistan without its government's consent if he gained actionable intelligence on the location of high-value targets in that country.
At the other end of the spectrum is Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who said in an August debate that Musharraf is "the only person that separates us from a jihadist government in Pakistan with nuclear weapons." Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has adopted a similar, though more tepid, position.
India's perspective, as expressed by Narayanan, differs from all those positions. It is less Musharraf-centric than Dodd's-in that it downplays his indispensability in safeguarding Pakistan'snuclear weapons-yet it remains generally supportive of Musharraf's performance. Given India's unmistakable interests in the security of its neighbor's nuclear weapons, its confidence in Pakistan's safeguards should be heeded in the United States, especially in the electoral season. The rhetoric that candidates use now could force their hand later. And that, apparently, has India concerned-so much so that it is compelled to vouch for its long-time rival.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.