The international community shares deep apprehension over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. These concerns persist despite repeated assurances from Pakistani government officials, its army and the academia that the country’s nuclear arsenal is well safeguarded from terrorists groups. A recent article on the Generation Why website questions international concerns regarding the “threat of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the extremists.” The author dismisses global concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by claiming that the possibility of “terrorists [taking] up the reins of state [Pakistan] ultimately has no legs to stand on.” Are such claims enough to assure that the international community including India can put their apprehensions to rest?

Back in 1976, distressed by the dissemination of nuclear technologies and expertise to ‘politically unstable countries’, military intelligence historian Roberta Wohlstetter warned that a nuclear-armed Pakistan increased ‘the probability of terrorist use of nuclear weapons considerably. Thirty-six years later in 2012, the Harvard Kennedy School in a study concluded that in Pakistan, the perils of nuclear theft is worsening, as the risks from a swiftly growing stockpile of nuclear weapons and increasingly capable adversaries offset nuclear security improvements. Earlier in 2008, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism in it report “The World at Risk” identified Pakistan at the “geographic crossroads for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.” The report premised its claims among other facts on the ground that Pakistan’s border provinces provide a safe haven for terrorists. Eminent Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy in his recently published edited volume Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out made candid disclosures over the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to insider threats. While questioning the efficacy of the security of the country’s nuclear weapons, Hoodbhoy “assesses the threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from within the country.”[1]

Does Pakistan face potential outsider threats to its nuclear arsenal? The answer is in the affirmative. In August 2012, militants attacked Pakistan’s most heavily protected Minhas nuclear air base at Kamra. Earlier, the base was consecutively attacked thrice in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In May 2011, a small team of insurgents stunned the world by launching an attack on the Mehran naval air base. These incidents are a sinister pointer to the terrorists’ determination to hit at Pakistan’s most sensitive installations and target its military capability. These trends pose significant threats to the security of Pakistani nuclear weapons and the sites housing nuclear materials.

Pakistan faces a two-pronged challenge – Islamic militant groups with sinister motives and ideologies to attack the US and India, and an Army having a high level of radicalization within its ranks.  Radicals have demonstrated their willingness to eliminate their superior officers and leaders of their country. Former President Pervaiz Musharraf who worked up enormous expenditure on his security arrangement was subject to seven known assassination attempts in which army personnel were involved. In 2003, General Musharraf was targeted twice by his army and air-force officers. The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto further questions the credibility of the Pakistani army and the security services of the country. The assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in June 2011 by one of his elite police guards in Islamabad is again a grim reminder of the risks insiders pose to the Pakistani establishment. When the country’s security apparatus has repeatedly failed to provide adequate security to its leaders, one can be skeptical about Pakistan’s efficiency in safeguarding its nukes.

The above-mentioned article claims that Pakistan’s nuclear command and control is as good as that of any other nuclear state. True, following the revelation of the AQ Khan global black-market in 2004, Pakistan undertook major reforms of its nuclear command, control, and security systems. Its nuclear inventory is protected by an authenticated code technology- permissive action links [PAL] -equipped with systems that will prevent any unauthorised access to the nuclear weapons. However, there exists a lot of uncertainty about claims whether Pakistan possesses any state-of-art code system technology. Pakistan’s nukes are kept in a de-mated state; hence there arises sufficient doubt whether PAL system is at all required. Moreover, even if Pakistan possesses PAL technology, there is no means to verify the efficacy of such a system and whether they are resilient enough to withstand system breakdown especially in crisis situations. Given the intensity of insider threat, SPD’s personnel reliability programme meant for screening personnel manning sensitive positions remains vulnerable to several questions.[2] There are reports claiming that SPD faces political pressure in matters of appointment. Such compromise in selection procedure can adversely affect the working culture and efficiency of strategic organizations and accelerate insider threats within Pakistan.

Contrary to the article’s claim, no security apparatus is foolproof and hence it cannot be vouched with absolute claim that Pakistan’s nuclear apparatus is 100 percent secured. In spite of claims of Pakistan’s foolproof nuclear apparatus, the author admits that the militants can get hold of nuclear weapons. Once these lethal weapons fall into wrong hands, whether the terrorists will use them or proliferate them to prospective sellers can be answered easily. Certainly the terrorists will not hand the nukes back to the Pakistani establishment. Apocalyptic terrorists groups can use these weapons against the western countries, India and even against Pakistan. Such eventualities will lay Pakistan open for further accusations of being an unsafe nuclear weapon state. Should the security situation in Pakistan deteriorate, it is not difficult to contemplate what the security scenario will be like in the whole of South Asia. This situation is neither acceptable to Pakistan nor to India and the international community.

The possibility of Pakistan’s nukes falling into the wrong hands cannot be simply dismissed as “hallucinatory.” Nuclear issues are simply not matters of national means and methods. It is binding on every state possessing nuclear weapons to make a commitment to the international community for the security of their nuclear assets. Pakistan’s efforts towards this end will not only display its political intentions on the safety and security of its nuclear assets but also establish itself as a responsible state with nuclear powers.

[1] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out  (Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.168.

[2] Ibid, pp. 197-198.

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