In 2009, the New York Times’ David Sanger wrote that “In the second nuclear age, what happens or fails to happen in Kidwai’s modest compound [the SPD] may prove far more likely to save or lose an American city than the billions of dollars the United States spends each year maintaining a nuclear arsenal that will almost certainly never be used.” So who is this Kidwai fellow anyway?
Amid all the major leadership changes in Pakistan last year, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai’s departure hardly struck a chord with the mainstream media. As I wrote then for The Diplomat, Kidwai was unlike any other individual in the Pakistani military establishment – he stuck around at the heart of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons program from the Chagai nuclear tests all the way through Musharraf’s tenure as President, into the final days of 2013. With Kidwai’s retirement, an important human constant was removed from the core of the Pakistan nuclear program.
So what exactly did Kidwai do that makes his departure warrant concern of any sort? Kidwai has formally headed Pakistan’s secretive Strategic Plans Division (SPD) since 2000. The SPD manages the operation, maintenance, and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpiles. Kidwai stood at the heart of it all over his 15 year career, receiving wide praise from Pakistan’s civilian and military establishment alike. He formally retired in 2007, but has received 12 extensions since then, allowing him to continue to serve as head of the SPD. The Nation claims that Kidwai holds the record for the longest career in Pakistan’s strategic defense establishment.
Kidwai’s role didn’t end there. He was Pakistan’s chief adviser on nuclear matters and consulted for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his first term, for Musharraf during his tenure, for Zardari thereafter, and for Sharif during his second term. He was also an interlocutor for U.S. defense officials – he constantly assured the United States that Pakistan’s nukes were safe under his watch, and that Pakistan was not a state proliferator of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials. His interactions with the United States caused controversy between him and A.Q. Khan – the infamous Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold nuclear secrets to unsavory actors in Iran and North Korea.
Few analysts have reflected on what Kidwai’s departure could entail for Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons. Michael Kugelman is one of the few. In a piece for The National Interest, Kugelman examines Kidwai’s tenure in some detail. He describes Kidwai as “the institutional face of Pakistani nukes” and argues that it is Kidwai’s “longevity and success that make [his] departure so unsettling.” It’s also concerning that Kidwai’s departure comes at a time when Pakistan continues to field the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, with a particular focus on tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) which are significantly more maneuverable than their strategic counterparts.
Kidwai’s departure should raise concern should his successor appear incompetent, but there seems to be no evidence that this is the case. Lieutenant General Zubair Mhamood Hayat, Kidwai’s successor at the helm of the SPD, seems to command praise across the board within Pakistan’s military establishment – he’s been described as “brainy, brave, and bold.”
Outside the SPD, the broader picture of nuclear security in Pakistan seems to be somewhat looking up. A White House report in October 2013 commended Pakistan’s efforts in the area of nuclear security. Additionally, as I reported last week, Pakistan ranked higher than India on several indicators for nuclear materials security on the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s 2014 Security Index (although I should note that the NTI report notes Pakistan’s “risk environment” as being the worst worldwide for nuclear security).
Additionally, the SPD is a military institution and one that can be understood to be immune from the vagaries of a lone leader. The SPD has generally been effective at safeguarding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and there is no reason to suspect that the status quo is bound to change given Kidwai’s departure. A.Q. Khan remains the major blight on Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation record and there could be others like him out there, within the ranks of the SPD. After all, many have conjectured that Khan was able to do what he did “with support from the establishment.”
Finally, with General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s retirement and General Raheel Sharif’s ascension, Pakistan seems to be paying slightly more heed to its internal security threats than its strategic obsession with India. We know, particularly after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, that links exist between Pakistan’s military, its Inter-Services Intelligence, and terrorists. Despite this, the Pakistan military has excellent reasons to want to ensure that its nuclear weapons and materials remain secure, away from the hands of these volatile extremists.
Kidwai’s departure will undoubtedly inspire nervousness in the United States and India, and only time will tell if his example served to inspire his successor. Despite the SPD’s institutional strengths, Pakistan remains prone to a nuclear crisis. The United States and India will be watching matters closely.