Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the bin Laden raid

May 15, 2011

In conducting a raid deep inside Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden, the United States pushed the boundaries of military operations,  inter-state ties and international law, all of which are the subject of a raging debate in the region and beyond. 

 One of the less talked-about issues is that the boots-on-ground operation by the U.S. Special Forces also blows a hole in a long-held argument that states which have nuclear weapons, legitimately or otherwise,  face a lower chance of a foreign strike or invasion than those without them. Thus  the United States didn’t think twice before going into Afghanistan within weeks of the September 11 attacks or striking against Libya now because there was no nuclear threat lurking at the back of the mind. Even Iraq was a tempting target because it was not known to have a well-established nuclear arsenal  although the whole point of the invasion was that it had weapons of mass destruction. That only turned out to be untrue.

And conversely there is a belief that the United States or some of the other Western powers  wouldn’t  take on North Korea because of the nuclear weapons it  holds. It is simply too dangerous and even in the case of Iran those who favour action say the time to do it is now while it is still developing the weapons, not when it has completed the programme.  

But the May 2 raid in a compound in a Pakistani garrison town tests that logic and shows the limits of nuclear deterrence, as Elbridge Colby, who served recently in the office of the U.S. Defense Secretary on START negotiations wrote in Real Clear World’s Compass blog. Pakistan has a powerful  nuclear arsenal, growing at a rate that will make it the fourth-largest in a decade behind only the United States, Russia and China. It has the delivery systems, both missiles and aircraft, to fire these weapons and a huge professional army to support the nuclear programme. Yet all that nuclear infrastructure  did not stop the United States from breaching its air space, inserting soldiers in the ground right under the Pakistani military’s nose, hunting down bin Laden and his associates in the house and flying away with his corpse. All without Islamabad’s consent, according to the version put out by both sides.

Things could have spun out of control, the Pakistani military could have engaged the Special Forces with unpredictable results. The air force  according to reports did scramble its fighters, so there was always the chance of a fight. Yet, as Colby says, it is striking – and a lesson for others – that America seemed willing to take its chances against a nuclear-armed power.  It shows that nuclear weapons do not provide blanket protection.

“Countries that have nuclear weapons can still be confronted and operated against without escalation to nuclear use, particularly when the objective pursued is limited and discriminate, and especially when that objective is connected to a truly vital national interest,” he writes.

In Pakistan’s case,  of course realistically speaking, there was no chance it would contemplate the use of nuclear weapons against the United States and that must have been factored into U.S. President Barack Obama’s calculations as he took the decision to proceed with the operation, Colby says.


In 2008, five of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (Nato) top military officers and strategists presented a radical manifesto to the Pentagon. They urged the West to be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to halt the ‘imminent’ spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the Guardian reported on January 22, 2008. These officers stressed that the first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of WMD. Owing to the sensitivity of the doctrine, nothing credible appeared on the issue afterwards.
Can Operation Geronimo serve as an ominous example and as a precedent for a scenario suggested at the Pentagon in 2008? How plausible are the recent Indian army and air chiefs’ assertions that they could replicate the American raid deep inside Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden? In the extreme event of a pre-emptive strike, can Pakistan defend itself? These questions may sound paranoid but do arise if the implications of Operation Geronimo are stretched to the limit. The success of the raid may, mistakenly, embolden others to think that they could get away with something similar. That said, Pakistan’s foreign office and the GHQ have warned India of catastrophic consequences if it takes American action as a rule and ‘miscalculates’ Pakistan’s response. America was cautioned not to repeat such unilateralism. Let’s try to unfold the possibility of nuclear first-use and Pakistan’s capability.
We have one historic example which shows that nuclear installations are only destroyed in raids once the targeted country’s programme is in infancy and the aggressor is 100 per cent sure that there will be no credible retaliation. Let’s take the US first. If it had any wish to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear capability, it would have done so in the early 1980s. But Washington could not afford to attack for two reasons. One, it needed Pakistan in the so-called jihad against the erstwhile Soviet Union. Two, it wasn’t sure how many bombs Pakistan had.
America won’t pre-empt for three reasons. First, its relations with Pakistan are on the rocks but have not nose-dived. Second, Pakistan doesn’t constitute a proliferation concern and finally, it remains their major non-Nato ‘ally’.
Let’s assume, against conventional wisdom, that America decides to take advantage of Pakistan’s misperceived vulnerability. In the confusion following a hypothetical American strike on Pakistan’s nuclear assets or command infrastructure, Islamabad may wittingly, or unwittingly, retaliate thus, sparking a nuclear war beyond anyone’s control.
Let’s understand the possibility of Indian pre-emption. Pakistan has not formally declared its nuclear doctrine so we don’t know if it will use the nukes first. Though the nuclear facilities on both sides can generally be pinpointed, locations of actual nuclear weapons are not public. Since nuclear facilities of both India and Pakistan are vulnerable, they have a bilateral agreement not to attack these and Indians don’t bat an eyelid in exchanging the list of installations with Pakistan on January 1 every year.
Some fixed launch-sites of weapons on land can be targeted, but neither can guess the location of mobile delivery systems, which include air launched weapons and sea-based assets. Targeting the decision-makers is problematic too. We know where the nuclear decision-makers live in peacetime but it is anybody’s guess as to where they will reside in times of crisis or war. India is fast moving towards difficult-to-target submarine-based nuclear arsenal and will have assured second strike capability. After the test of slim Hatf-IX (Nasr), Pakistan may soon mutate it to develop a submarine platform. Hence, the threat of destruction will assuredly become mutual.
The history of Pakistan-India crises shows that India engages in chest-beating in moments of Pakistan’s weakness. Its air and army chiefs did so by suggesting that New Delhi retains the capability to copy the American raid in Abbottabad. Even if the capability is possible, can they be sure of starting a war without the risk of it escalating to a nuclear one?
Deterrence, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the aggressor and hubris on nuclear power is the last thing a nuclear state must exercise. No matter how many impregnable lines of defence any technology can break, the risk of a single weapon landing on the aggressors’ soil is too big to be taken. That’s probably why the radical pre-emptive strikes manifesto of Nato’s wizards fell out of favour and no one heard of it again. ar-pre-emption-after-geronimo/

Posted by zahirhkazmi | Report as abusive

Well , Pakistan is a Nuclear Power. Its another thing that it was diplomatic with US until now.

First Pakistan has multiple delivery mechanism for Nuclear weapons

a) Air plane based

b) Missile based , these missiles can hit off targets
thousand and thousand of miles away

c) Cruise Missile based

d) Submarine based

Also Pakistan produces its own Fighter jets produced locally so that number will increase to 300 brand new fighter jets , not to mention the 30-40 brand new top of the line fighter jets arriving from China by 2014

The point to note about these fighters is that they are multi capability , Night/Day – Air-Air , Air to Ground missions

With that said and done lets also not forget that Pakistan Manufactures its own Frigates and Warships and has good number of ships

Pakistan is also getting Chinese AWACs (Early warning planes)

Also any Preemptive strike will also not suite well with China – who are also a World Super Power

And Recently conducted treaties between Russia and Pakistan shows a positive trend

Posted by CurruptPundit | Report as abusive

lol… God knows if pakistan will ever mature from its delusional hate-hindus-hate-jews-hate-US phase…

In the end what security have nukes given pakistanis ??
can a pakistani know if he is going to come back home alive from the market… or the bus…. or the train… or die in some suicide bomb somewhere ?

Its a failed state which can built 2000 nukes if it wants but the life of ordinary pakistanis will remain impoverished and miserable and insecure.. no amount of nukes will change that..

pakistan is a perfect example of what happens when a country’s priorities are screwed up

Posted by garykarpov | Report as abusive

I agree with those who say that the Indian Chiefs statements were general in nature and dealt with capability, not intention. Were they expected to say no, we dont have any such capability? Who would believe them? This is childish insecurity.

Should India go into national mourning over Pasha’s bumbling statement the other day about rehearsals on Indian targets? Certainly not. Sure they must have selected targets and even trained to attack specific targets, thats what armies the world over do – training, training and training and then some more training.

As to nuclear deterrents, I doubt Operation Geronimo has any lessons regarding conflict situations in a nuclear environment other than the fact that future conflicts would probably be limited to hit and run raids. Whether a country re=acts to these with a nuclear response, depends entirely on their thinking of the consequences. I always wonder why people talk as if Pakistan holds all the trump cards in a nuclear exchange with any country – not just India. I am sure they have realised that, considering the size of their country, it is easier for India or anyone else to inflict greater damage to Pakistan than Pakistan can inflict on others. That is what prevents them from becoming trigger happy maniacs. Cold rational thinking.

All said and done though, I do not think it is right for any nuclear armed country to point fingers at another which feels insecure and wishes to gain nuclear status. If the US has a right to nuclear weapons, then why not India or Pakistan or anyone else? The only solution is total nuclear disarmament. When it comes to survival and national security no country will think rationally.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

we have no one to blame but ourselves for the situation in Pakistan – we educated their military and their scientists – give billions of dollars which shold go to improve the lives of their citizens but which go to military purposes – if they don’t cooperate in the war on terror and spend our money more wisely – we should cut of funds -

Posted by dllavine | Report as abusive

Why is Pakistan building more nukes? They went for the nukes to achieve parity with India and have achieved the needed deterrence. So why build more? Are they planning to blackmail the world later on by threatening to sell nukes to other countries if their demands are not met? That many nukes are not needed to wipe out all of India. Or are they manufacturing for China?

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

How far will the Chinese go in propping Paks terrorist aggression against international community?

This paper examines the limitations in how far China can prop up their poodles-the Paks. akistan_emerging_strains_in_the_entente_ cordiale_kardon.pdf

Posted by netizen | Report as abusive


You missed a vital point. Nukes are non living things and do not go off on their own. It is the people with their fingers on buttons that matter. If Pakistan has all that capability that you stated and their nukes are ‘defenders’ all of middle east (defending from whom) and protector of ‘ISLAAAAM’ (does Islam need protection) then what is stopping them from launching nuke strikes on Israel? Why are they accepting, in their own words, an insult to Islam in form of Israel? So much chest thumping and no action.

In today’s Pakistan no one has to do anything from outside to push it to debacle or become next North Korea. People in Pakistan are so blinded by hatred for India that they are ready to become a pawn in hand of China as long as it hurts India. The military has literally given free hand to mullahs with minor mindsets to instill hatered for India at large among their population.

United we stand and divided we fall. When will pakistan learn that dividing bouandaries does not necesarrily mean division of hearts.

Posted by 007XXX | Report as abusive

Sorry I directed my above post to Myra whereas author of this article is Sanjeev. So my above post is for Sanjeev instead of Myra.

Posted by 007XXX | Report as abusive

Every nation has its own goals, its tryst with destiny. India’s , just as the world’s rest of the countries goals are to reach high standard of living for Indians, no matter where they come from. He could be Hindu or a Muslim or anybody else, but Pakistan’s goals and its tryst with destiny seems to be very different from what rest of the world have. Its just to compete with India in numbers, in fact something in numbers. As they couldn’t match in literacy rate, economic growth, percapita incomes or health indices, thats what their raison detre may be right now.

Now Coming to some cold calculations. India doesn’t try to match this madness of equipping so many nuclear warheads simply because devoid of any sensible anti-ballastic or anti-cruise missile systems in their defences against India’s supersonic Brahmos, Pakistan sole surving tactic is nuclear scaremongering.India doesn’t need so many warheads on a country sixth its size.

Secondly, again without any effective defensive systems against supersonic missiles, it makes the paksitani’s to give their best shot of throwing as many missiles on India, so their strategy is singular, just like when military men ran out, germany fielded children at the end of the world warII to fight the battle hardened russians!

Also, world is moving very quickly on the anti-ballastic missile shields and as they are highly costly in deploying the,. Major military powers are slowly investing billions to reach the precision which was thought to be impossible decades ago.

Pakistan is putting all its eggs in one basket namely nuclear arms race while forgetting that lack of required focus on nation building and economy will eventually lead her to lower defence expenditures and even lower resources to future technologies.

while the insane military generals keep talking about nuclear consequences, they are not able to understand that nuclear first strike is not the end of the war but the begginning of the war and most likely the end of pakistan.

Lets say pakistan has fired 100 nuclear weapons against India (scary to think, but just think anyway as some members here seem to threaten with nuclear consequences)
India’s economy is ten times bigger and will likey be 20 times by 2025 based on current trajectory. So if we post pone the impending wary for 15 years. India can produce 20 times the weapons that pakistan can. While we don’t need that many strategic weapons, let’s see even if we built a faulty anti-missile shield which has barely 5% hit rate for the incoming missiles (ie 20 anti ballastic missiles to target 1 nuclear missile, we will still be safeguarding most of our nation).

Mind you that I have calculated the cost of nuclear missile to anti-ballastic missile, but in reality nuclear missile is still very costly to an anti-ballastic missile which will mostly shield our cities (where pakistan chooses its targets, infact it might be 3 or 4 where we should crowd out all our ABM’s)

Finally, if such case is imagined, India should have bombed atleast some percentage of active missiles (pre emptive strikes )and before pakistan thinks of its second lot of missiles which may hit India. JUST THINK ABOUT OUR RETALIATION.
Clever men never spend everything on one strategy to success.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

What is really disturbing in all this, is the fact that it’s not the democratically elected government in Pakistan that controls the nuclear weapons but an ideologically driven Army.

If the chain of events described after the raid is true, we should all be worried. Clearly command and control in Pakistan is far from well-defined. In a nuclear-armed state, this is an extremely worrisome thought.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

God forbid that the democratically elected Govts control the nuclear weapons in any country. Pakistan democraticaly Govt. would have ordered a nuclear response to the American adventure. ISI was alerted of the helicopters intrusion and the military did not respond……

Equaly if George W or Mr Obama order a nuclear attack on any country, the military is very likely to refuse the order.
In my opinion no military in the world is going to accept any such lunatic order from the civilian head of state unless in their judgement the national security is definitely being compromised! General MacChrystal challenged the deocraticaly elected head and instead named his advisers as ‘clowns’. O’k, he was retired but this is the price the military commander has to pay unless the guy starts a coup. We are not living the time of ww2!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

PS Robert Gates has said to the congress that anyone who suggests USA involvement in another mideast country needs to have his head examined! USA mlitary commander is very likely to refuse even a conventonal military attack in another country, let alone a nuclear attack!

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive


Picture you painted in really very frightening, Pakistani support to terrorism is now fully exposed , it is a matter of time before they fall in the hands of terrorists . It is time international community must do something to safeguard the nukes .

Posted by manishindia | Report as abusive

Strategic Plans Division headed by Lt. Gen Khalid Kidwai possesses custodial controls of Pakistan’s strategic assets. Apart from that the command and control system, PAL(Permissive Action Links) and digital codes, keeping the warheads and actual weapons seperate, means Pakistan’s nuclear technology is in safe hands. Additionally, the Army strtategic force command, handles long range ballistic missiles, nuclear capable warheads, delivery mechanisms and their deployment and launch during crisis. There is an elaborate system in place and no doubt should arise in Pakistan Armed Force’s capability to defend, and repulse/retaliate any attack to snatch the nukes. Everyone, take a deep breathe, relax and sit back.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

It helps that Pakistan has no effective means of striking at a U.S. target with the delivery systems it has. Everything is targeted and capability-limited to Indian geo-space.

Posted by amspock | Report as abusive

Well said. Let me advise those who are putting out well rehearsed and advertised propaganda of the USA for nations who are interested to acquire or others such as Pakistanwho already possess them. Nuclear weapons can also be compared with an empty gun, which is most dangerous for the one who carries it and for the one it is aimed at.

We know about the clever Americans whose nuclear armed missiles were found abondoned at an airport without any one knowing that they are nukes? Pakistan has this asset, the only asset which scares the Indian military strategists simply because in case of conflict with Pakistan casualties would include their own famiies and millions others. We in Europe equaly do not want any mushroom coming our way. We have not forgotten the first test by Pakistan which they were compelled to carry in view of Indian tests!

Every country has devised its own techniques to stock, protect and yet be able to release at numerous targets without expecting a Japanese type surrender or giving any chance for discussions among the civilian or military leaders. Navy and the airforce play a great role in this warfare and systems are usualy automatic,never mind what the hollywod films tell us different scenarios.

Let the Indians imagine that Pakistan defences are weak or guess incompetence on the part of Pakistan military and imagine about how Pakistan aims to protect its sovereignty. If the would be opponent is able to know the operation mechanism of Pakistan nuclear system, it has automatically the upper hand. Let the enemies keep guessing. Pakistan military has learned the lesson that no ally is to be trusted!!!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Every day Pakistanis fight for their survival. We go out and never now when we will come back. We face terrorists and trying to defeat them. We have lost 34,000 citizens and 80% of our economy. Yet we are blamed for everything. It is unfair.

Posted by shamanadil | Report as abusive


You’re right. It’s unfair. But blame your own leaders for squandering every opportunity given to them.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

shamanadil: “Every day Pakistanis fight for their survival. We go out and never now when we will come back. We face terrorists and trying to defeat them. We have lost 34,000 citizens and 80% of our economy. Yet we are blamed for everything. It is unfair.”

No one is blaming the people of Pakistan. Please remember that. We are all with you in your suffering. We are also victims of the same terrorism that has begun to affect Pakistan. Your military made the wrong choice in 1989 and it is now making your countrymen pay the price for it. To them, only bullets, missiles and grenades count and not people’s lives. They like to defend territories, but do not have much interest in the lives of humans inside those territories. Do not take sides with your military. They are the ones responsible for today’s situation. They were also responsible for the genocide in East Pakistan and its final separation. They have used India as the bogeyman and have fooled Pakistanis all the way through. If you want terrorism to end in your country, you all will have to fight your own military and cleanse it from top to bottom. Until you do that, your country is going to burn more inside and get isolated like a lepers’ colony by other nations.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

“If the would be opponent is able to know the operation mechanism of Pakistan nuclear system, it has automatically the upper hand. Let the enemies keep guessing. Pakistan military has learned the lesson that no ally is to be trusted!!!

- Rex Minor

So when the Soviets and the Americans exchanged information on the nuclear arsenals, rough guidelines on activation, etc. it actually increased the threat of war? Wow. Maybe they didn’t get the memo.

I usually avoid your nonsense, because it’s gone from borderline insightful to something that’s quite painful to read.

But here, you’re actually advocating increased tension between India and Pakistan, for no apparent reason or benefit to anybody (including Pakistan).

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

KEIThZ has a question! I am not realy interested in Indians post, a mob which is mostly in the habit of ransfering one crap published in a news paper to another crap from another news paper on this blog, a typical Indian habit which I learnt at the age of 16 about Indians. Once they have learnt to read and write, they engage in reading every paper they can get hold of. It is very difficult to identify if the guy is a liberal, conservative or a socialist. No sir, they all have demonstrated to Pakistanis or Pakistan sympathisers that they all have one thing in common and that is to take part in the hate propaganda against Pakistan and to collect every mean literature they can get hold of and place it as comments on Myras articles.

Now, to the question, Russia and America are in a different league.America has been found to cheat and therefore Russians insist on verifyable agreements now . America and the world should thank Nikita khruschev, who was on the brink of destroying most of today’s America and as well as sacrifising part of Soviet Union. John F kennedy caved in and Nikita cooled down.

India and Pakistan do not have any peace treaty, and regard each ther as the arch enemy. Pakistan has no hostile designs against any other country, the enimosity against India is in the mind, hearts and the visceral system of most Pakistanis I have come across and Indian people, particularly the literate and intellectuals one not those of the orange brigade, never let go of Pakistan in the international arena any opportnity for blaming it for the resistance which the west is experiencing from the Arab world.

Can any one imagine who in Israel is likely to order a nuclear attack on a muslim land. I have already speculated too much. Any one with a normal inelligence can with stretch build a scenario similar to that what I have done. OR perhaps wait till another smarter guy publishes it in NY tmes or Washington Post or even in Hindustan times. Then we all would say, why did we not know about it? Both India and Pakistan are living with the risk of nuclear annhilation and know exactly the rules of the game. Adios.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

O’h, really. This is a surprise, all the goodies for India? Do the Indians know about it?

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

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