Pakistan: Nuclear Materials are not on the loose

Admittedly, prior to the detection of A.Q Khan Network, nuclear materials security in Pakistan was on the loose especially in the context of nuclear weapons program. But, certainly it is not the case now. Pakistan has travelled a long way in terms of strengthening and upgrading nuclear safety and security apparatus — a fact even many Indian strategic experts concede. The legislative and institutional response by Pakistan to ensure nuclear materials security both in civilian and military domains is believed to be unprecedented in the post A.Q Khan Episode. So, at official level, Pakistan claims to have an impeccable record in nuclear materials security.

I think it’s unnecessary to outline here those measures that Pakistan has taken to cope with international apprehensions and concerns as they are well documented and are increasingly debated in nuclear literature over the last few years. The important question that needs to be examined is: why still concerns are being raised to target Pakistan’s nuclear materials security capacity? Let me try to find the answer in an academic way.

Pakistan as a nation-state is in jeopardy, it is gradually withering away — mired in countless problems. Maximalist approach of the state has virtually converted it into a hybrid-theocracy. And sadly, the trajectory is continuing on the way towards a complete theocracy. The policy of using sub-conventional forces for strategic purposes is now backfiring ruthlessly and resulting in intense radicalization of the society. The United States–Pakistan security establishment–Jihadi organizations’ security romance has made Pakistan a breeding place for militants. One may disagree, but all this has made Pakistani society a highly emotional and religiously divided, so the element of logic and fact is scarce nowadays.

Currently, the transnational terrorists, particularly the TTP, are carrying out savage attacks across the country with a sense of impunity. To make things worse, the terrorists are hell-bent to impose their nefarious worldview – a retrogressive ideology. Arguably, the TTP is emerging as a stakeholder in the backdrop of recent internal security dynamics. It wants to scuttle the whole country through decimating the writ of the state, so that it can dictate conditions on internal law and order decisions, foreign policy issues, role of women in the society, and media policies. The state’s sheer incapacity or perhaps deliberate unwillingness to deal with these militants has also resulted in Afghan Taliban using North Waziristan as “strategic depth” to wage holy war against Kabul regime and NATO forces.

If we recap the decades-long tumultuous situation in Pakistan, we see even the important political figures are targeted. There were several assassination attempts on former President Pervez Musharraf; former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Governor Punjab Salman Taseer were killed by religious zealots and many more attacks were unleashed on people from all walks of life. Likewise, the security forces have to bear the losses of hundreds and thousands of fine soldiers. The son of Governor Taseer and the son of former Prime Minister Yosuf Raza Gailani are kidnapped by TTP for ransom or prisoners’ swap purposes.

So, the eroding institutional capacity and chaotic internal security environment of Pakistan is used by various circles very conveniently to conjure up many scenarios such as terrorists getting hold on Pakistani nukes for their apocalyptic objectives. It is next to impossible that terrorist will get hands on Pakistani nuclear weapons; however, few peculiar threats cannot be ruled out with regards to nuclear materials security.

It is very difficult for terrorists to permeate, sabotage or subvert Pakistani nuclear materials security by means of a coordinated attack because of multi-layered fool proof security system. Nevertheless, they may gain access to sensitive materials through insider help. It is a fact that many scientists, engineers and security personnel, though from low cadres, have been sympathizers to many militant organizations. After all these people are from the same highly religious society that is contributing suicide bombers and fresh recruits to TTP. Certainly, the TTP and Al-Qaida will aim at nuclear materials to be used as bargaining chip with the state of Pakistan, perhaps for prisoners’ release and financial objectives. They may also use nuclear materials to terrorize the public.

Moreover, in the presence of terrorists at every nook and corner of the country, during crisis/conflict/war times the nuclear materials security may pose a daunting challenge to already fragile state. The war-fighting tactical nuclear weapons, once they are handed over to the strategic forces in a war theater, may be manipulated by the militants.

Overall, nuclear materials security is a global problem and needed global responses. Perhaps, there is an urgent need of a well-organized global system to address nuclear materials security.


Image: Aamir Qureshi-AFP, Getty

Posted in , Escalation Control, Internal Security, Militancy, Military, Nonproliferation, Nuclear, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Security, TNWs

Muhammad Sadiq

Muhammad Sadiq is a lecturer at the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies (DSS), Quiad-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad, Pakistan since 2007 and a former visiting fellow (fall 2012) at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, MIIS California. He also served at Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) as an “International Relations Analyst” for a short period of time in 2007. He has M.Sc and M.Phil degrees from DSS, QAU. Besides teaching, he is pursuing his PhD from the School of Politics and International Relations, QAU. His area of research and teaching include Nuclear Nonproliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament, and Nuclear Strategy.

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8 thoughts on “Pakistan: Nuclear Materials are not on the loose

  1. Pakistan has significantly evolved its technical and procedural nuclear security operations since its 1998 nuclear tests. It also has willingly engaged with international partners in an attempt to further strengthen its security and control processes. The major changes over the past nine years include the creation of the NCA, the establishment of the SPD, the development of a nuclear doctrine, the improvement of export controls, the integration of the command and control system, and the employment of permissive action links on nuclear weapons.
    Although the concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear security during the current political crisis raised questions about the adequacy of the system, there have not been any examples to date of systemic failure. In fact, the weapons and facilities have been secure throughout the crisis, providing a measure of assurance that the last decade’s improvements are working.

  2. When the international analysts are left with nothing to discuss over, they start criticizing the Nuclear program of Pakistan; associating them with the danger of terrorism. State possessing nuclear weapons are shrewdly concerned about the safety and security of its national assets same applies to Pakistan. Author has very finely defended himself at the start that he is academically trying to portray the situation but later on his views seem to be scripted or plagiarized of the views presented by Brig. Salik’s account on “Building confidence on Pakistani Nukes”; where he accurately talked about the same situations in Pakistan. Pakistan since the 1998s test has established its National command authority, where SPD is the Secretariat of NCA. Nuclear terrorism is an emerging concept but it is not that much easy to stole a material or bomb and operate it. Whole complex process, expertise are required. Pakistan is running its nuclear weapons program in safe and secured manner. Recently deployed more than 25,000 forces over the nuclear installations for the protection of its national assets. Also Pakistan is an active participant of Nuclear security summits which shows the concerns of the country regarding the safety of its nuclear weapons and also its efforts to counter the emerging threats of nuclear terrorism.

  3. It is a huge assertion with lack of evidences. 1st of all Is it possible for terrorist to reach nukes which are controlled by 25000 security personnels? 2ndly How will you elaborate the internal connections with TTP ? its worth to note that security officials are checked through Personnel reliability systems. Moreover Command and control structure is not only consist of few persons rather, nukes are guarded by hierarchy of professional officials. I think writer has no idea about safety measures taken by Pakistan to ensure world-class safety and security.

  4. One important thing that why security on this material was loose? I think Pakistan acquired this technology after a great struggle. Some extra authority was given to many scientists while acquiring this technology. This authority was misused by A Q Khan and he participated in some illegal activities. This increased the consciousness of all responsible authorities. It mobilized them and they took more serious steps to control proliferation and maximize security. Now Pakistan has best and foolproof security. Pakistan command and control authority is very efficient, active and alert. Nuclear force consists of more than 20,000 trained personnel. One important observation from past is that although militants tried to attack some key military places but they failed to achieve their targets. No doubt law and order situation in Pakistan is not satisfactory but it is not weak to such an extent that non state actors may succeed to overturn regime to rule country. Will militants succeed to get control of military installation? It is impossible in presence of present force as one important point is that they have sympathizer at low level but I think they will under strict intelligence because such steps are necessary to maximize security and keep them away from terrorists.
    Will terrorist succeed to have an access to this material in crisis such as war? There is no chance because nuclear command force has just the role of protection of these assets not to participate in war. However, if terrorists succeed to overcome all military force in country then there is some such possibility which is impossible.

  5. Muhammad:

    You write that “Pakistan as a nation-state is in jeopardy, it is gradually withering away — mired in countless problems.” And you note “the eroding institutional capacity and chaotic internal security environment of Pakistan.” These are regrettable truths. We also read serious reporting about how much of Karachi and the Punjab may now be beyond the writ of police, national and provincial authority.

    Yes, Indian military capabilities have to be considered and countered. But there can be no doubt at this point that Pakistan’s highest national security priority is to regain internal security. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent does not help to improve internal security. Without internal security, additional fissile material production and nuclear weapons will not make Pakistan stronger. Reason suggests otherwise: with deteriorating internal security problems and with growing stockpiles, the difficulties facing the SPD and its security directorate grow every day.

    In my view, the biggest threat to Pakistan’s security relates to the smallest nuclear weapons that have the least military utility and that most complicate Pakistan’s doctrine and plans to defend itself from external threats. The smallest nuclear weapons also pose the greatest challenges to those entrusted with their security.

    Consider the possibility of the TTP gaining control of a tactical nuclear weapon and then threatening Pakistani, not Indian, authorities with it.

    I have pointed out the SPD’s strengths and I have also pointed out the weaknesses of previous writings by western analysts that have overdramatized attacks on certain Pakistani military facilities. So please believe that my remarks are not intended to be sensationalist. To the contrary, my comment is meant to draw attention to internal security and nuclear developments that compound threats to Pakistan’s wellbeing.


  6. Krepon:

    Thank you for your comments.

    Being a patriotic proud Pakistani, I firmly believe many western scholars have been consistently exaggerating the situation regarding nuclear safety and security in Pakistan. Intentionally/unintentionally they invariably try to downplay the multiple measures that have been taken by the Pakistani nuclear decision-making body.

    From the little I know, these measures certainly provide fool-proof security to both civil as well nuclear weapons programs. However, till the time Pakistan does not put its house in order and achieve national security at all levels and in all dimensions, the concerns and apprehensions will continue to be raised by the West and even people like us from within the country who want peaceful prosperous Pakistan.


  7. Sadiq
    You can guard against thieves, can have the strongest sentries and burglar alarm systems but you cannot guard against a certain mindset. All of Pakistan’s problems come from an inherent insecurity and are bye products of a certain mindset. Nothing is out of reach when people share the same mindset. The difference between stolen and gifted is in the semantics of interpretation.

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