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Embedded malcontents of nuclear Pakistan

by Harsh V. Pant

BANGALORE, India — A government unable to control large parts of its territory, a military in disarray, loss of control over nuclear assets, radical Islamists intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction — that’s the stuff nightmares are made of, at least for the West. Pakistan’s current turmoil is causing jitters around the world precisely because this scenario might just come to pass as the Talibanization of the country drags it to the brink of collapse.

Pakistan has been reeling under a relentless wave of terror strikes, targeted primarily against security forces, police and government officials. But what is causing consternation in the global corridors of power are recent attempts by the extremists to target Pakistan’s nuclear installations.

Recently a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint outside the maximum security Pakistan Aeronautical Complex reportedly linked to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program at Kamra near Islamabad, renewing concerns about the safety and security of its nuclear arsenal. This was the second attack on the base since 2007 when a similar attempt was made.

Other attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities include an attack on the nuclear missile storage facility in Sargodha in November 2007 and an attack in August 2008 on the armament complex at the Wah cantonment, one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear that he remains gravely concerned about Pakistan, though he continues to project confidence that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will not fall to the militants. Even Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari sometime back raised the specter of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban, albeit adding the caveat that nukes are safe as of now.

Though Pakistan’s government is always quick to dismiss media reports that its nuclear weapons are in danger of falling into the wrong hands and stresses that Pakistan provides the highest level of institutionalized protection for its strategic assets, the credibility of such claims remains open to question.

Instituted in 2000, Pakistan’s nuclear command and control arrangements are centered on the National Command Authority, which comprises the Employment Control Committee, the Development Control Committee and the Strategic Plans Division.

In addition, a small group of military officials apparently have access to the country’s nuclear assets. These command and control arrangements continue to be beset with some fundamental vulnerabilities that underline the reluctance of the Pakistani military to cede control over the nation’s nuclear assets to civilian leaders.

It is instructive to note that of all the major nuclear states in world, Pakistan is the only country where the nuclear button is in the hands of the military. That’s not at all comforting when former civilian leaders, including the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, made clear at the height of various crises that the Pakistani military keeps civilian authorities out of the decision-making loop on the crucial issue of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, senior civilian and military officials responsible for these weapons have a problematic track record in maintaining close control over them.

A.Q. Khan was head of the Pakistani nuclear program (and a veritable national hero), yet was instrumental in making Pakistan the center of the biggest nuclear proliferation network by leaking technology to states far and wide including Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistani nuclear scientists have even traveled to Afghanistan at the behest of Osama bin Laden.

While it is true that Pakistani military has been a very professional and perhaps is the only the cohesive force in the country today, it is not clear if it would be able to continue to exert its control over the nation’s nuclear assets if the militants continue to gain ground in the absence of institutionalized safeguards.

It is believed that Pakistan relies on separating the fissile core from the weapon to ensure that a usable weapon doesn’t fall easily into wrong hands. But it would take little time for the command and control network to collapse if Pakistan slid toward greater anarchy. Sympathizers of radical Islamists within Pakistani military and intelligence agencies could then help terrorist groups acquire the wherewithal of a nuclear weapon.

Throughout the Cold War years, it was viewed as politically prudent in the West and especially in the United States to ignore Pakistan’s drive toward nuclear acquisition as Pakistan was seen as an important ally of the West in countering the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Nuclear proliferation has never been a first-order priority for the U.S. when it comes to Pakistan.

Various U.S. governments have continued to go easy on the Pakistani military even while it claimed that it had no knowledge of the A.Q. Khan network. Now the chickens are coming home to roost as the Pakistani military seems unable and unwilling to take on the Islamist forces gathering momentum within the Pakistani territory on the one hand while, on the other, the nation’s nuclear weapons seem within reach of extremist forces.

The international community needs to be aware of the potentially catastrophic implications of the collapse of governing authority in Pakistan. Irrespective of India’s other problems with Pakistan, Indian decision-makers have had little doubt so far in trusting that their Pakistani counterparts would make rational decisions insofar as the use of nuclear weapons was concerned. That assumption might soon need to be revisited if current trends in Pakistan continue.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and currently is a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.