The Nuclear Crisis Nobody Mentions

05/07/2015 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

Those congressmen beating the war drums against Iran have reached new heights of hypocrisy considering their total disregard for the more dangerous, more immediate problems created by Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It is noteworthy and also downright strange that no one else--from any political persuasion--is paying attention.

The trouble is, Pakistan may become a failing state. We can't know this for certain. The fact, however, that the possibility can be raised gives pause. A failing state with over a hundred nuclear weapons, building more as fast as it can, miniaturizing new weapons, and having perpetually hostile relations with its neighbor, India, also a nuclear power, presents risks far beyond regional security.

How, for example, should the world respond to a state that proliferates nuclear weapons but denies doing so and that might not even be able to control its proliferation? As a count of its nuclear arsenal edges toward several hundred, and as it increasingly deploys tactical nuclear weapons near its border, Pakistan's government faces extraordinary challenges of command and control.

Hypothetically, suppose that during a future crisis with India a failing Pakistani government delegates control over tactical nuclear weapons to dozens of forward commanders. Suppose further one or two weapons are 'lost.' Conceivably, nobody we consider to be in authority would know what had happened, or would admit knowing. If later on a terrorist group obtained such a weapon they would attempt to detonate it. A smallish nuclear artillery shell, for example, could be sailed up the Thames to London on a yacht.

The point is, if Pakistan starts to 'lose' nuclear weapons the world has no ready response. And if a 'loss' produced a catastrophic event it is reasonable to think that the world would not wait for a second event before forcibly removing the threat. To be blunt, that is the war on Iran that hawks keep talking about, except much worse.

What are the odds? We can make a not unreasonable guess in terms of orders of magnitude. Over the middle term is the chance of Pakistan failing one in ten, one in a hundred, or one in a thousand? One in a thousand seems too low. One in ten (perhaps) too high. One in a hundred also seems low but among our choices it's the best fit. Furthermore, we can assume a failing state with nuclear weapons would lose a few. But the probability regarding how many doesn't change our order of magnitude approximation.

We routinely like to insure homes, businesses and property against damage from events with less than one in a hundred chance of happening. Surely we should do something similar about the potential danger of a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists.

After Pakistan's first test detonations in 1998 the smart thing would have been to make nuclear arms control on the subcontinent a priority. That that never happened reflects badly on American leadership. Despite occasional alarms sounded by experts at the upper reaches of the national security establishment--Rolf Mowatt-Larrsen, for example, says "there is a greater possibility of a nuclear meltdown in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world"--American officials vacillate between fear of a nasty scrap and hope that the problem will just disappear.

Rationalizations for doing nothing hold sway. Washington reflexively defers to Riyadh, Pakistan's chief ally. From the outset the Saudis, as a matter of religious zeal, have been keen for Pakistan to develop an "Islamic bomb." And since 1991 Washington has been greatly preoccupied by the war in Afghanistan--too often finding itself at the mercy of Islamabad for assistance combating insurgents. Domestically, what purport to be well-intended incentives of arms shipments in practice create political blowback from American corporations hungry for billions in sales. The result is, leaning hard on Pakistan seems insane even if it makes perfect sense.

Nevertheless, it remains mysterious that so few in or out of government worry about the risks. It's not as if the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons brings previously unknown tensions to the surface. In the 1980s, for example, the U.S. stationing of Pershing II missiles in Germany was perceived to be so destabilizing that it led to the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik and thereafter to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. To this day the great powers find theater nuclear weapons a highly vexatious diplomatic issue. Nor are problems of command and control unfamiliar--as recently as 2007 six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles effectively went missing for a day and a half from Minot Air Force Base. The Secretary of the Air Force then resigned and a group of senior officers were disciplined. Hopes, therefore, that a substantial enlargement of Pakistan's tactical nuclear capabilities might not increase instability has little foundation in experience or common sense.

Since the early 1990s--for more than two decades--hawks have been talking up a war against Iran. Meanwhile, barely a word is said about Pakistan. The difference may be due partly to Israel's outsized influence. But it feels like something else is going on.

To hazard a more intuitive guess, bluster over Iran comes cheap whereas disarming Pakistan is the real deal. And if negotiations didn't work does America go to war over the potential threat? A war that devastates Pakistan could be the result. Yet without diplomacy the very same war, the one the establishment doesn't expect, could be the one we can't avoid. Maybe it isn't so surprising after all that we don't talk about the stuff of nightmares.

It's never too late for diplomacy but it's imprudent to cut it so close.