Three Insights from Underwhelming U.S-Pakistan Nuclear Talks

Three Insights from Underwhelming U.S-Pakistan Nuclear Talks

Despite the highly precarious nature of Pakistan’s nuclear program, early reports of U.S.-Pakistan nuclear negotiations in mid-October appear to be overblown. Though the prospects of such a deal are not entirely unforeseeable, the implicit risk is high.

At the invitation of President Barack Obama, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (pictured) was in Washington from October 21st to 23rd for official bilateral discussions. In the days preceding these high-level talks, several anonymous U.S. officials disclosed that Washington had initiated exploratory talks with Islamabad on limiting Pakistan’s nuclear program.

The inner-workings of the hypothetical U.S.-Pakistan nuclear deal would be simple. In exchange for an immediate cap or similar restriction on the growth of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the U.S. would harness its influence in international nuclear institutions to afford Pakistan’s presently illicit nuclear program a semi-recognized status.

This would ultimately provide Pakistan access to global nuclear trade and peaceful nuclear technologies through the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group, established to regulate the trade and transfer of nuclear technologies and materials.

Since this initial revelation, expectations for any kind of U.S.- led agreement on Pakistan’s nuclear program have been significantly scaled back: by the U.S. Press Secretary, Pakistani officials, and think-tank op-eds alike. While this skepticism appears to have been confirmed by an October 23rd joint statement that avoids any suggestion of a new nuclear dialogue, the fact that both Washington and Islamabad have acknowledged the preliminary discussions at all indicates a shifting paradigm in bilateral relations.

With this in mind, the following three insights summarize the implications of this recent and underwhelming U.S.-Pakistan meeting, while also forecasting the outline of a potential future nuclear agreement.

1 . Pakistan’s Military Sets the Tempo in November

While Sharif’s three-day diplomatic visit appears to have failed to produce any substantive developments, there is good reason to believe that PM Sharif is simply the wrong figure to be discussing such matters in the first place. In Pakistani politics, it is the military rather than the central government which has long been recognized as the true authority in Islamabad – a precedent which PM Sharif has failed to overcome.

This means that – largely – the holder of Pakistan’s foreign policy reins is Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif (right), particularly with regards to nuclear weapons. An opportune moment will therefore occur in the coming weeks, when General Sharif carries out his own diplomatic visit to Washington.

The return of Gen. Sharif to the U.S. may initiate the high-level discussions on limiting Pakistan’s nuclear program.

If the scales are beginning to tip in favor of a lengthy nuclear negotiation, there is an immediate and unmatched opportunity to be found in General Sharif’s visit — although said visit could just as easily herald a short and swift demise of the deal as well. Either way, November will set the tempo for U.S.-Pakistan nuclear relations in the short-term.

  1. Obama Eyes Afghanistan in the Short-Term

Another important factor is the source behind American motivation to open the discussion — Afghanistan. Of course, the United States views Pakistan’s nuclear program as the most immediate threat for nuclear proliferation and is eager to restrict its further growth, but it is the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan that has led Washington to suddenly open up the nuclear dialogue.

With the Obama Administration now taking the reluctant decision to remain in Afghanistan through 2017, the U.S. is eager to find ways that ensure America’s presence need not be prolonged even further. Islamabad is vital for such ambitions as foreign policy analysts have on numerous occasions asserted that “no improvement in Afghanistan is possible without Pakistan.”

Indeed, it is Pakistan’s apparent support of and continued inaction towards terrorist groups along its border that makes it the lynch-pin of the Afghanistan debacle. By offering Pakistan a pathway towards internationally recognized nuclear status, the U.S. may gain influence over Islamabad and indirectly the Taliban.

  1. Significant Risk in the Medium- and Long-Term

Yet, as much as Washington would like to construct an Afghanistan escape-plan out of the political capital gained from a Pakistani nuclear deal, such a deal is unlikely to materialize in the near-term. In addition — and as can be expected with any negotiation involving nuclear weapons — the prospect of crafting a time-consuming nuclear deal brings significant risk, potentially outweighing any benefit the U.S. would gain in Afghanistan.

For one, opening the door to discussions on a civil nuclear agreement provides Pakistan with the potential to follow the Iranian precedent. Pakistan is likely to utilize the threat of an expanded nuclear arsenal in order to extract an otherwise lopsided deal out of Washington, similar to what some analysts have claimed Iran recently did using the threat of nuclear acquisition.

Secondly, the negotiation of a nuclear deal will in the best case scenario do nothing to address what is most concerning about Islamabad’s nuclear program — the systemic threat of proliferation in light of an unacceptably poor nuclear security record.

In the worst case scenario, a nuclear deal with Pakistan may ultimately increase the potential for proliferation by validating Pakistan’s illegal nuclear activities and emboldening it to take further parlous actions. Even outside of nuclear matters, providing Pakistan with legitimized nuclear status might send the signal that the regime’s other controversial actions — such as the sponsoring of terrorist groups – are implicitly being tolerated.

For the time being, Pakistan’s nuclear program will retain its position as arguably the most severe nuclear conundrum in the world, with an arsenal set to grow faster than any other nation (14-27 new nuclear weapons per year).

Gen. Sharif’s November visit is poised to play a major role in setting the stage for Washington’s near-term capabilities for nuclear negotiations with Islamabad, but diplomats in Washington first have many risks to weigh in determining whether such a deal is even favorable.

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.