Pakistan's nuclear weapons have been conceived and developed as a deterrent against mighty neighbour India, more so now when its traditional rival has added economic heft to its military muscle. But Islamabad may also be holding onto its nuclear arsenal to deter an even more powerful challenge, which to its mind, comes from the United States, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who led President Barack Obama's 2009 policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pakistan and the United States are allies in the war against militancy, but ties have been so troubled in recent years that some in Pakistan believe that the risk of a conflict cannot be dismissed altogether and that the bomb may well be the country's only hedge against an America that looks less a friend and more a hostile power.
Last year the Obama administration said there could be consequences if the next attack in the West were to be traced backed to Pakistan, probably the North Waziristan hub of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups.No nation can ignore a warning as chilling as that, and it is reasonable to expect the Pakistan military to do what it can to defend itself.
Riedel in a piece in The Wall Street Journal says Pakistan's army chief Ashfaq Kayani may well have concluded that the only way to hold off a possible American military action is the presence of nuclear weapons on its soil and hence the frenetic race to increase the size of the arsenal to the point that Pakistan is on track to become the fourth largest nuclear power after the United States, Russia and China.
Last month's military action in Libya, the third Muslim nation attacked by the United States in the ten years since 9/11, can only heighten anxieties in Pakistan. Indeed Libya holds an opposite lesson for Pakistan's security planners. This is a country that gave up a nuclear weapons programme - ironically assisted by Pakistan's disgraced nuclear scientist A.Q.Khan - under a deal with the West following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Suppose for a moment that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had held on its nuclear weapons, would there have been air strikes then ?