Watch those warheads

Nuclear weapons are a matter of great national honour in Pakistan. A traveller driving around will see representations of the missiles on walls and the back of trucks. Since the nuclear weapons programme began in the 1970s, the Pakistani public has been led to believe that the weapons are guarantors of the state’s security. But with the country continuing to suffer civil unrest, some fear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of religious militants. This does not go down well in Islamabad. The government not only claims that it can protect these weapons but also sternly warns the west against any attempt to step in to protect or neutralise them—late last year Frederick Kagan, architect of the US surge in Iraq, draw up contingency plans for US troops to invade Pakistan and secure the nuclear arsenal in the event of the country falling into chaos.

Pakistan’s nuclear journey began at a conference in January 1972 in Multan, in the wake of the country’s crushing defeat by India in the 1971 Bangladeshi war. At the event, chaired by Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a decision was taken to build a nuclear weapons programme to respond both India’s attempts to build a bomb and to its advantage in conventional weapons. New Delhi carried out its first peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, after which Islamabad became more active in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Pakistan initially lagged behind India in terms of scientific and technological capacity, but this gap was filled when the infamous AQ Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist employed at a nuclear facility in the Netherlands, decided in the wake of the Indian tests to provide blueprints and contacts to Pakistan to help create a uranium enrichment facility. In 1976, Khan returned to Pakistan, founding a nuclear research laboratory at Kahuta (subsequently named after him), which ultimately provided the enriched uranium for the six nuclear tests conducted in May 1998.

Since then, Pakistan has twice come close to a war with India (1999 and 2002) in which nuclear weapons might have been used. That prospect terrifies the international community, as does the fear of nuclear material being stolen by Islamic militants. The latter anxiety is reinforced by the fact that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies were deeply involved with establishing the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Many people in Pakistan believe that the relationship between parts of the military intelligence establishment and Islamic militants remains intact.

What are the implications of the close relationship between military intelligence and militants for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal? Some observers are concerned about the possibility of enriched uranium or actual weapons falling into the hands of militants, or of militants acquiring influence over those in the military responsible for guarding non-conventional assets. The first danger is hard to imagine. The Pakistani nuclear arsenal, estimated to consist of 40-80 warheads, is in the safe custody of the armed forces. In February 2000, Islamabad formally announced the creation of the National Command Authority (NCA) to oversee them. The NCA’s two committees are served by and connected through the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which is manned entirely by military personnel. The SPD is also responsible for the security of all strategic organisations (including AQ Khan’s Kahuta research laboratories, which were allegedly involved in the proliferation of nuclear materials and designs to Iran, Libya and North Korea between 1989 and 2003). A number of the SPD’s staff were trained in the US and its officers regularly visit American think tanks to learn the art and craft of deterrence. In any case, the delivery systems are not paired with their warheads; and it would be a Herculean task for a militant organisation to steal the nuclear warheads and then find a missile or aircraft to deliver them.

The other possibility—of militant influence over those military personnel who control the weapons—is a little more worrying. Two of Pakistan’s retired nuclear scientists—Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudiri Abdul Majeed—were rumoured to have met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in August 2001. In a recent interview on Pakistan Television, however, one of the SPD directors, Khalid Banuri, who is generally trusted in the west, claimed that these scientists were not involved in the most critical components of the nuclear programme. But the larger concern in this area relates to the ideology of those controlling Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. There is a genuine anxiety about the ability of the secular generals to keep a lid on extremism in the armed forces. A few army and air force personnel were reputedly involved in the two assassination attempts on Musharraf in December 2003 (although Musharraf himself said that only “low-ranking” personnel had been involved, and that al Qaeda was ultimately the mastermind of both attacks). These officials were converted to extremism under a state policy of support for militancy. The majority of the officer cadre has been purged of religious zealots, but the state continues to see some segments of the militants as assets. This larger policy is flawed, and may come to haunt the military later. However, any impact that it might have will play out more in terms of the war on terror rather than security of nuclear weapons, which are supervised by segments of the military friendly to the US.

The fact that senior Pakistani generals continue to support the US remains the primary guarantee for the US for the security of the nuclear arsenal. These senior officers are not religious ideologues. And those reputed to be religiously motivated have not held on to power: the former head of the ISI, Mehmood Ahmed—whose strong religious commitment was described by General Musharraf in his memoir—was one of the first to be demoted under American pressure after 9/11, as was his deputy chief of army staff, Muzaffar Hussain Usmani. The military at large depends on capital inflows from the west to keep its toys running and to buy new ones as well—its officers can certainly be depended upon to keep religious zealots away from the nuclear weapons. Moreover, the senior echelons of Pakistan’s military and the SPD have by now acquired enough knowledge of nuclear deterrence to understand that proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to other countries, especially next-door neighbours, does not benefit Pakistan strategically. The current generation of generals is different from the proliferators, who probably believed they were building an independent power bloc.

If the worst came to worst, could the US detect and destroy each of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads and its static and mobile missile launchers? Launching a direct attack would not be at all easy. A better option would be to encourage greater accountability and transparency. A better disciplined Pakistani military would prove a greater guarantee against any deliberate or inadvertent proliferation, or mishandling of the country’s strategic assets.

Note: This article originally published here.