Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal

And what woe it could breed

The New York Times has a very interesting, lengthy article by David Sanger on problems with Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Although Pakistani officials repeatedly suggest that their weapons are safely secured, they would not allow American or other officials to verify this; thus we are basically left with their reassurances, and unfortunately there’s not much in the past that would help us accept their reassurances. On the other hand, it’s not just the safety of the arsenal that’s the only matter of concern.

Among other things, the article profiles Khalid Kidwai, a general who is in charge of the Pakistani arsenal. Kidwai is a man who knows a lot but will not say much. He was essentially put in charge of the security of the complex after the 1998 nuclear tests. Although Pakistan’s nuclear secrets were supposed to be secure after this, it was just one month before 9/11 in August 2001 that one of Pakistan’s most prominent and eccentric nuclear scientists, Sultan Mahmood, had a meeting with Osama Bin Laden. Mahmood was a chilling emblem of the conflation of advanced technology and religious fundamentalism. Even more than A Q Khan he wanted to build an “Islamic bomb” and was more than glad to await the day of reckoning. Nuclear weapons were undoubtedly discussed in his meeting with the Al Qaeda leader, although the details remain vague. The fact that such a meeting even took place calls into question how safe Pakistan’s nuclear secrets are. Plus, nobody is going to allow American authorities to directly inspect the nuclear complex. Mahmood and A Q Khan have long since been kept incommunicado. We have to take the Pakistanis’ word for accounting of nuclear material and personnel checks.

The article has other troubling details. While the warheads and missiles are apparently kept separate by the authorities, specs on Permissive Action Locks (PALs) are not known. PALs essentially disable a warhead if someone tries too hard to tamper with it. The Pakistanis would not allow American personnel to inspect their weapons and installs PALs. Apparently there was some exchange of design information between the two countries, but nobody would say how effective that exchange was and whether its recommendations were put into effect. More exchange has been thwarted by one of those ironically absurd and ridiculous policies where the US cannot divulge details of PALs to Pakistan because then it would be ostensibly selling nuclear technology to a failed state. Muddle-headed bureaucracy does not get any better than this.

The principal problem as always is that it’s just difficult to trust anything that the Pakistanis say for two reasons. Firstly nothing that they say can be actually verified. But more importantly, Pakistan’s past pronouncements have turned out to be false so many times either because of inside complicity or ignorance that it’s hard to believe them when they say they are a responsible nuclear power. Consider the A Q Khan and the Mahmood debacles. Consider the radicalization of the universities from where the nuclear programs draws its talent. There are 2000 Pakistani personnel with advanced nuclear knowledge and even 1 percent of these wiling to offer their expertise to terrorists is a huge liability. The article also talks about Prime Minister Yousef Gilani’s 2008 trip to Washington where he wanted to assure Bush that he had ordered a raid on a radical Madrassa school in tribal areas where Islamic radicalization was part of the daily curriculum. Apparently the NSA had already intercepted messages from insider elements which warned the school about the raid before it took place so that targeted personnel could possibly leave. Bush knew about this, and yet Gilani tried to assure Bush that it was evidence of how the Pakistani government is trying to weed out radical elements.

As long as there is a total lack of control from Islamabad over fundamentalists in the ISI, in the general populace and in the defence forces, no assurances that the Pakistani government gives the US or the world can be taken too seriously. There are just too many non-state players sometimes in collusion with state players who run amok in the country. Neither the president nor the prime minister nor any single authority controls them; even the more authoritarian Musharraf could not keep them in check. Official promises are not going to stop unofficial actions. And as long as these anarchic elements continue to be part of the unofficial and official outfits of Pakistan, the threat of its nuclear arsenal falling into the wrong hands will always have to be taken seriously. Even if directly pilfering a nuclear weapon may be hard, there are many other ways in which the love of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons can be spread around. When it comes to assessing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, it is important to err on the safer side.

But an even more important lesson to be learnt is that US policy towards Pakistan needs to be significantly changed. For 50 years the US has supported the country in hopes of first fighting communists and then of fighting terrorists. Both these objectives have bred unwanted repercussions. During this process the government has also turned a blind eye toward Pakistan’s nuclear activities in the hope that their neglect will be compensated for by a greater victory. But there has been scant success in this endeavor. In addition, instead of the US dangling carrots in front of Pakistan, it’s been Pakistan who has inevitably dangled carrots in front of the US. Pakistan’s carrots have been simple and very effective; give us money otherwise we will descend into chaos. Perhaps now the mantra of the US should be- give us the terrorists or we will replace the carrot with a stick. The buck needs to stop here.

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