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The United States and Pakistan are by now a classic example of a dysfunctional nuclear family (with an emphasis on “nuclear”). While the two governments and their peoples become more suspicious and resentful of each other with every passing month, Washington and Islamabad are still locked in an awkward post-9/11 embrace that, at this juncture, neither can afford to let go of.
Washington is keeping Pakistan, with its collapsing economy and bloated military, afloat but also cripplingly dependent on its handouts and US-sanctioned International Monetary Fund loans. Meanwhile, CIA drones unilaterally strike its tribal borderlands. Islamabad returns the favor. It holds Washington hostage over its Afghan War, from which the Pentagon won’t be able to exit in an orderly fashion without its help. By blocking US and NATO supply routes into Afghanistan (after a US cross-border air strike had killed twenty-four Pakistani soldiers) from November 2011 until last July, Islamabad managed to ratchet up the cost of the war, while underscoring its indispensability to the Obama administration.
At the heart of this acerbic relationship, however, is Pakistan’s arsenal of 110 nuclear bombs, which, if the country were to disintegrate, could fall into the hands of Islamist militants, possibly from inside its own security establishment. As Barack Obama confided to his aides, this remains his worst foreign-policy nightmare, despite the decision of the US Army to train a commando unit to retrieve Pakistan’s nukes, should extremists seize some of them or materials to produce a “dirty bomb” themselves.
Two Publics, Differing Opinions
Pakistan’s military high command fears the Pentagon’s contingency plans to seize its nukes. Following the clandestine strike by US SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011, it loaded elements of its nuclear arsenal onto trucks, which rumbled around the country to frustrate any possible American attempt to grab its most prized possessions. When Senator John Kerry arrived in Islamabad to calm frayed nerves following Bin Laden’s assassination, high Pakistani officials insisted on a written US promise not to raid their nuclear arsenal. He snubbed the demand.