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Pakistan’s Nukes a Cause for Concern


By Richard Walker

In the wake of an increased threat from al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as growing skirmishes between militants and the Pakistani military, Pakistan has raised security levels at all its nuclear facilities.

Pakistani Gen. Khalid Kidwai recently confirmed that the “level of alertness” at nuclear facilities was raised and the military was more than capable of dealing with “all kinds of threats.” He did not reveal how many nuclear weapons his country possesses though it is believed to be between 50 and 100, with an ongoing program of uranium enrichment for the building of more.

He was careful to avoid mentioning the fact that some of the country’s nuclear missile sites were in Western provinces in order to have more warning time should India launch an attack. That means, however, some sites containing nukes are located in tribal areas controlled by al Qaeda and the Taliban.

One threat to Pakistan’s nuclear security that is rarely mentioned in Washington is one that could come from that country’s military, which has total control of the nation’s arsenal. A chilling report by the Pakistan Security Research Unit at Bradford University in England hints at the growing role of radical Islamists with lower ranks of the military. In a briefing paper entitled: “Pakistan- The Threat from Within,” one of the Research Unit’s experts, Pervez Hoodbhoy, had this warning about the Pakistan army:

Musharraf and his corps commanders well know that they cannot afford to sleep too well. It is in the lower ranks that the Islamists are busily establishing bases. A mass of junior officers and low-ranking soldiers—whose world view is similar to that of the Taliban in most respects—feels resentful of being used as cannon fodder for fighting America’s “war on terror.” It is they who die, not their senior officers. So far, army discipline has successfully squelched dissent and forced it underground. But this sleeping giant can—if and when it wakes up—tear asunder the Pakistan Army, and shake the Pakistani state from its very foundations.

The alleged 9-11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, was arrested in Rawlpindi in 2002 in a safe house provided by a serving army officer. The officer, like many of his military contemporaries, was a member of Jamaat-i-Islami, an Islamic party that wants Pakistan to end its secularism and become an Islamic state.

Since 9-11 the United States has given more than $100 million to Pakistan’s military toward the cost of securing its nuclear arsenal. Now, members of homeland security committees on Capitol Hill have taken a greater interest in the issue. In June 2008, Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institute, who has written several books about Pakistan’s military, told a Senate committee that Pakistan had become “virulently anti-American” and its role as a member of the nuclear club presented challenges for the U.S.

In his opinion, if Pakistan fell into serious internal strife, elements of the military, not necessarily aligned with the U.S., could seize parts of the nuclear arsenal as a political bargaining chip. Another risk, he found “hard to qualify,” was the country’s nuclear industry being penetrated by conspirators determined to steal a nuclear weapon or nuclear materials.

His antidote was for the U.S. to engage more fully with India and Pakistan and use increased targeted funding to gain a greater role in shaping Pakistan’s nuclear security policy. But for all his optimism about finding a way to keep Pakistan’s nukes out of the hands of the bad guys, he worried that it might not be possible. He said Pakistan “may yet fail comprehensively” and it was not outside the realm of possibility that a “truly authoritarian leader” would emerge.

Cohen’s risk analysis of a conspiracy to penetrate Pakistan’s nuclear security has added emphasis when one looks at what has happened since 2000. The former CIA chief, George Tenet, admitted in his memoirs that Osama bin Laden made approaches to the now disgraced nuclear proliferator, Dr. A. Q. Khan, who has been described as the “Father of the Islamic Bomb.” Of course, there is also the case of the two Pakistani nuclear energy officials, Sultan Bashiruddin and Chaudry Abdul Majeed, who discussed nuclear issues with al Qaeda in two meetings in Afghanistan before and after 9-11. They were retired at the time and were working in Afghanistan for a non-profit group called Ummah Tamees-e-Nau (UTN)

It was later established that UTN had an interest in bio-weapons, a fact that was discovered when U.S. Special Forces came across a hoard of documents in Afghanistan. As a consequence, the Pakistani authorities arrested and questioned members of the board of UTN, who turned out to be former army officers and nuclear scientists. None was charged.

The exposure of UTN connections to al Qaeda and the Taliban clearly illustrated that within the Pakistani military and nuclear industry there were people with ideological links to dangerous militants. There is no reason to assume that people of that ilk do not still exist within, or on the fringes of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and uranium enrichment programs. It is especially disturbing if such people exist within the military responsible for guarding nuclear sites.

According to Pakistan’s foreign ministry, nukes are “kept under multiple custody,” implying three layers of security before a nuclear weapon can be assembled, moved or fired. It is believed U.S. has the most advanced command and control system for its nuclear arsenal, using computers, secret codes and a multi-layered chain of command. In the U.S. nuclear arsenal, nukes are on site to be fired within a very short time of a presidential order to strike at an enemy.

Yet, despite  the sophistication of U.S. security, an unauthorized B52 flew six armed nukes from South Dakota to Louisiana in September 2007.Apparently someone at an Air Force base in Dakota had forgotten to remove the warheads from the cruise missiles while they were being loaded onto the B52.

Given that Pakistan’s system is nowhere near as hitech as the one used by the U.S., there is fear in Washington about Pakistan’s nuclear security.After 9-11 the U.S. offered to install a hi-tech system like its own to protect Pakistan’s nukes but the country’s military turned down the offer, presumably on the basis that the U.S. would have had joint control of nuclear triggers. Instead, Pakistan got $100 million to upgrade its security and received the most advanced helicopters and night vision technology to protect vulnerable sites.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons security is probably based on practices used by India and several other members of the nuclear club. That involves separating warheads, trigger mechanisms and delivery vehicles so that one individual cannot readily assemble a nuke. But Pakistan is known to be able to assemble a nuke within 30 minutes, so it maintains all the elements of each weapon within a given location. The only insight into the storage and security of nuclear weapons was revealed years ago and it related to the South African arsenal. That country’s nukes were kept within a vault system in which individual components were stored in different vaults that could only be accessed with codes provided by senior political and military figures, including the country’s president.

But, because Pakistan sees India as an ever-present threat, it has nukes on constant standby, resulting in less stringent levels of security because of the perceived need to assemble and fire the weapons within the 30 minute window.

Richard Walker is the nom de plume of a former news producer who now works for AFP so that he can write about “taboo” subjects he was formerly forbidden to discuss while working for mainstream publications.

(Issue # 31, August 4, 2008)

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