Military insiders threaten Pakistan’s nuclear assets

by Brahma Chellaney

DELHI — Without naming the United States as his source, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said recently: “We have been assured that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are in safe hands as of now. And I have no reason to disbelieve the assurance.”

To his acute embarrassment, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, soon thereafter, said the “unthinkable” could happen in Pakistan: Islamists could get “the keys to the nuclear arsenal.” Which raises the question: Does America have a contingency plan to avert an Islamist takeover of Pakistan’s “crown jewels” and, if so, can it work?

Pakistan’s nuclear-stockpile security is handled by the Strategic Plans Division, which has under its command a special unit of about 1,000 troops. But as Clinton acknowledged, the Pakistani nukes are “widely dispersed,” with storage sites extending beyond the Punjab heartland to Sind and Baluchistan provinces.

The U.S. appears to have few good options to pre-emptively seize the nuclear arms if a national meltdown is imminent.

To be sure, the Strategic Plans Division — the keeper of the country’s nuclear keys — is headed by a U.S.-backed general, Khalid Kidwai, who was held in India as a prisoner of the 1971 war and released after the 1972 Simla Agreement on normalizing India-Pakistan relations. Kidwai has headed the SPD ever since it was created after the 1998 nuclear tests. In other words, it was on Kidwai’s watch that the infamous A.Q. Khan-led nuclear-smuggling ring remained in operation.

Yet for Washington, Kidwai is a trusted man. It was Kidwai whom military ruler Pervez Musharraf used to extract a tutored confession from Khan so that the entire blame for the illicit nuclear ring could fall on a single individual, sparing the military establishment — a charade the Bush administration readily went along with.

To tamp down growing international concerns over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, U.S. President Barack Obama said on April 29: “I’m confident we can make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure, primarily, initially, because the Pakistani Army, I think, recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands.”

Obama’s confidence, amazingly, is rooted in his belief that the jihadist-infiltrated Pakistani Army is taking cognizance of such perils. Indeed, by suggesting that Washington continued to trust the Pakistani Army with custodial control of nuclear assets, Obama only compounded the insult he simultaneously hurled at President Asif Ali Zardari’s elected government in calling it “very fragile,” ineffectual and unable “to gain the support and loyalty” of the Pakistani people.

Obama’s comments, made just before he received Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a trilateral meeting, highlighted a long-standing U.S. policy partiality for Pakistani military generals, even though the real Islamist-takeover threat today comes from within the increasingly radicalized Pakistani Army.

Rather than help build robust civilian institutions, Washington propped up military rulers for five decades and still continues to pamper the Pakistani military establishment, best illustrated by the proposed $3 billion in fresh military aid over the next five years and the setting up of new cooperation between the CIA and the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

The choice in Pakistan is not between Islamists and U.S.-sponsored generals, who actually reared the forces of jihad and still nurture many jihadists. Both are a threat to international peace and security. But even as Obama is making Pakistan the biggest recipient of U.S. aid in the world, his harsh criticism of Zardari — in office for just eight months — risks undermining a fledgling civilian government and emboldening the military. Zardari is right in saying that a military coup in Pakistan, as in the past, can occur only with U.S. support, however tacit.

Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon tellingly occurred not under civilian rule but under military rule. While one military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, let loose the jihadists he reared, another dictator, Musharraf, pushed Pakistan to the very edge of the precipice. Before Musharraf’s nearly nine-year rule, few in the world looked at Pakistan as a failing state. How can Pakistan become a “normal” state if its military, intelligence and nuclear establishments remain outside civilian oversight?

Yet when the new civilian government ordered the ISI last July to report to the Interior Ministry, it did not receive support from Washington, allowing the army to quickly frustrate the move. The command and control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons rest with the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, as Zardari is just the titular chair of the National Command Authority dominated by military and intelligence leaders. In such an anomalous setting, can the U.S. really prevent jihadist control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

The U.S. first allowed Pakistan to acquire the nuclear bomb by turning a blind eye to its illicit procurement of blueprints and items from overseas. Then, when the clandestine nuclear importers in Pakistan morphed into covert nuclear exporters, the U.S. failed to detect their proliferation activities for 16 long years. Worse still, Washington has not been interested in fully investigating the very network it helped uncover or in bringing its ringleaders to justice. As a result, international investigations into that ring have collapsed and even A.Q. Khan has been freed from house arrest.

Khan’s discharge followed Switzerland’s release of the two Tinner brothers, who along with their father were important conduits in the Pakistani ring. One of the brothers, Urs Tinner, has acknowledged working undercover for the CIA. In fact, the CIA shielded A.Q. Khan for a long time. As former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has revealed, the CIA protected Khan from arrest and prosecution in Europe in 1975 and 1986.

Today, even as Obama seeks to assure the world about Pakistani-nuclear security, his aides admit Washington does not know where all of Pakistan’s storage sites are located. Pakistani officials have doggedly deflected U.S. requests for these details.

Although the U.S. has provided some $100 million worth of technical assistance to Islamabad under its International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation program, American personnel have been denied access to most Pakistani nuclear sites, even when they have made a case for on-site installation and training.

The U.S. has been loath to sell Pakistan “Permissive Action Links” (PALs) — electronic locks embedded in weapon design that have special access codes. But it has helped Pakistan design a system of controls, barriers and sensors, including improvised electronic-locking devices added to already-built weapons. But rather than let Americans enter its sites, Pakistan sent its personnel for on-site training in the U.S. on intrusion detectors, portal monitors, locks and material-accounting equipment. Put simply, the U.S. has not been allowed to see how its money has been spent.

In any event, modern security and accounting systems can be of little value in the face of insider threats. The real threat of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal comes not from jihadists outside, but from jihadists within the system — specifically, from the jihadist-penetrated military, intelligence and nuclear establishments.

Yet, with the Obama administration hyping the Pakistani Taliban threat to win early congressional passage of record-level aid for Islamabad, international concerns have centered on outsider threats. The Taliban, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan, have not been active outside Pashtun areas, and there is no evidence of any nuclear assets being present in the troubled Pashtun parts.

Pakistan has emulated India’s example in storing nukes in disassembled form, with the warheads and delivery vehicles stowed in separate facilities. For outsiders to acquire even one complete bomb, capture of at least two facilities would be necessary, along with the expertise to mate the fissile “core” and trigger with the delivery vehicle. This is unlikely to happen without military generals and other senior insiders actively colluding with the outsiders.

Insider threats indeed have repeatedly been exposed — from the ring that sold centrifuge technology and bomb designs to the jihadist charity set up by two senior nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majeed. Mahmood, who once served as A.Q. Khan’s boss and designed the Khushab reactor, advocated that the Pakistani nukes were the property of the whole ummah, or Islamic world, and Pakistan had a duty to share nuclear technology with other Muslim states.

Then CIA chief George Tenet writes in his 2007 book, “At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA,” that President George W. Bush was so concerned by the charity’s activities that he directed him to fly to Islamabad. The charity was shut down and Mahmood detained.

Programs to screen and monitor personnel can achieve little when jihad-spouting personnel abound in the Pakistani military and nuclear establishments. Such personnel can serve as sleepers for extremist groups.

Safeguarding Pakistani nuclear assets from jihadists demands the creation of a stable, moderate Pakistan. That, in turn, demands sustained international political investment in building and strengthening civilian institutions. But can that happen without a fundamental break from U.S. policies that continue to prop up a meddling army, fatten the ISI and encourage the military, intelligence and nuclear establishments to stay not accountable to the elected government?

If U.S. policy remains driven by political expediency and near-term objectives, an Islamist takeover of Pakistan could result from one of two scenarios: a collapse of central authority or, more likely, an intramilitary struggle in which the jihadists gain ascendancy.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in Delhi.