In a blunt message delivered very publicly on Friday, the United States told the Pakistani government to “exercise restraint” regarding the use of nuclear weapons, or the talk about it, alluding to the rhetoric coming out of Islamabad lately.
“I would just say nuclear-capable states have a very clear responsibility to exercise restraint regarding nuclear weapons and missile capabilities,” US state department spokesman Mark Toner said at the daily briefing in response to a question, about "some of the rhetoric from the Pakistani government".
"And that’s my message publicly and that’s certainly our message directly to the Pakistani authorities," he added.
He didn't elaborate but the United States has been concerned about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, said to be the fastest growing in the world, for a while and not only in the regional context but, and mostly, about terrorists getting access to them.
There had been a sharp rise in Islamabad in talk about using nuclear weapons to prevent India from carrying out a retaliatory strike against the Uri attack by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad on September 18.
"We will destroy India if it dares to impose war on us. Pakistan army is fully prepared to answer any misadventure of India," Pakistani defence minister Khawaja Asif told a Pakistani TV channel last Monday.
"We have not made an atomic device to display in a showcase. If such a situation arises we will use it and eliminate India," he had added, raising alarm not only New Delhi but capitals around the world already worried about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which is growing rapidly, falling into the hands of terrorists. The defence minister had made a similar threat on September 17, the day before the Uri attack.
If his intention was to scare New Delhi, he failed.
Two days after Asif's interview, Indian special forces crossed the Line of Control to hit a string of launchpads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in what have been called "surgical strikes"; the extent of damage inflicted remains unclear.
Islamabad has not fully acknowledged them yet — even tried to dismiss it as a routine exchange of fire across the border — and, it is feared, it may rush into something rash to thwart criticism at home of allowing a humiliating infringement of its sovereignty go unanswered.
But a nuclear strike? Pakistan has talked publicly about using "low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons" (also called battlefield nuclear weapons) — that are less devastating than strategic nuclear weapons that can destroy entire towns and cities.
Pakistani officials have also been remarkably open about the purpose of these tactical weapons. “Our nuclear programme is one dimensional: Stopping Indian aggression before it happens. It is not for starting a war. It is for deterrence,” foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said during a visit to the US in 2015.
The United States was planning to offer Pakistan a nuclear deal then that would have capped its nuclear arsenal in exchange for access to nuclear equipment and supplies it had facilitated for India in 2008. But it didn't work out.
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