May 18, 2009 1:44PM

Pakistani Nukes: The Solution or the Problem?

The New York Times writes up the revelation that Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal.  Congressmen and Senators, we're told, are worried that US military aid might be diverted to this purpose.

Two points here.

1. Insofar as we are giving money to Pakistan, it probably doesn't matter much if we restrict it to our priorities. Money is fungible -- by funding something Pakistan might have paid for itself, we free its funds for other priorities. Maybe it's the case that the Pakistanis view aid that US gives them for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capability as purely wasteful -- and therefore wouldn't spend a dime if we didn't provide it. But probably they would have bought much of this capability if we didn't, and therefore we are freeing up funds for other purposes like the expansion of the nuclear weapons arsenal. If we don't want to help them do that, we should quit funding them, period.

2. Lots of people point out that Pakistan's big problem is India -- that its preoccupation with its largely indefensible Indian border prevents it from devoting sufficient resources to pacifying its restive Pashtuns and encourages it to employ high-risk strategies like using extremists to tie down Indian forces in Kashmir. 

What you don't hear much is that nuclear weapons, and particularly the secure second strike capability that Pakistan is likely pursuing, is a potential solution to this problem. Nuclear weapons are a cheap form of defense. In theory, the security that they provide against Indian attack would allow Pakistan to limit its militarization, stop bankrolling extremists, and focus on securing its own territory as opposed to its border. (Note: I'm not arguing that that's necessarily right, I'm arguing that if you think vulnerability to India is what creates danger for us in Pakistan, you should consider the utility of nuclear weapons in solving this problem).

Pakistan's nuclear weapons are frightening, no question. But the series of wars Pakistan and India have fought since their split should put that fear in perspective. If they can arrest conventional conflict, the nukes are doing great good.

With our president calling for a nuclear-weapons free world, it's worth considering whether abolishing nukes makes sense if you can't abolish war.