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Nuclear Security in Pakistan

Nuclear Security in Pakistan

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Sharad Joshi

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

The debate over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons periodically flares up from time to time, highlighting persistent concerns over the ability of the Pakistani security establishment to safeguard its nuclear weapons and facilities from terrorist groups and proliferation networks. In August 2009, such concerns were once again provoked by the publication of an analysis by a Britain-based academic Shaun Gregory which pointed out that in recent years several tightly-guarded Pakistani military installations have been attacked by terrorist groups and that several of these installations are suspected of housing important elements of Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal. The implication is that such attacks are an indicator that there are plausible threats to Pakistan's nuclear security from non-state actors.

Threat perceptions regarding Pakistan's nuclear security generally revolve around a few scenarios such as takeover of the country by a radical Islamist regime leading to nuclear weapons control passing into their hands; terrorist attack on a nuclear facility; and terrorist and/or proliferation networks accessing nuclear weapons and materials, possibly with assistance from insiders in the Pakistani nuclear program.

Three main factors lie at the root of such concerns. First, as pointed out most recently by Gregory, terrorist attacks are increasingly focusing on military and government facilities, which pose a threat to nuclear installations as well. Attacks such as those on military targets like Sargodha, Wah, and Kamra in 2007-08 highlight potential vulnerabilities in the security perimeter. Elite military units such as the Special Services Group (SSG), to which Gen. Pervez Musharraf belonged, also have been targeted by suicide attacks well inside their bases. At least since the Red Mosque episode in summer 2007, there has been a substantial increase of terrorist violence, in terms of intensity, targeting strategy, as well as geographical spread. Moreover, there was renewed concern in summer 2009 over the spread of Taliban-controlled areas in western Pakistan, in close proximity to nuclear installations.

At this point, there is little clarity over the exact intentions of terrorist groups striking at sensitive military facilities, beyond simply attacking Pakistani government and military targets. Thus, we do not know whether the terrorist planners took into account the possible nuclear weapon-links of these bases when they decided to target them. But regardless of their specific intentions and objectives, nuclear facilities and weapons can be targeted even inadvertently.

Moreover, terrorist networks have been considering Pakistan's nuclear weapons in their strategies. For example, in July 2009, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, in a message to the Pakistani population said that the United States wanted to take control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, implying that they (i.e., Al Qaeda) can help protect the weapons. In recent months, jihadi Internet forums have also continued discussions on taking over Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

The second factor is the continued political instability in Pakistan, although that has subsided to an extent in recent months. Nevertheless, it raises questions over whether the government and the military have the necessary strength to take tough security decisions to push back destabilizing forces such as the Pakistani Taliban, that can pose a threat to sensitive military installations. One of the scenarios mentioned above talks of the prospect of radical Islamist groups taking over Pakistan. That prospect looks unlikely in the near term, given the push for democracy in Pakistan in recent years and the dismal showing of religious political parties in recent elections.

Finally, the continued legacy of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network is the suspicion among some sections of the international community that because of several unanswered questions related to the activities of the network, Islamabad's nuclear program remains vulnerable. Key questions that remain unanswered are: who else, within the Pakistani political and military establishment, was involved in the network? And, what equipment and designs were transferred (or were intended for transfer) and to which recipients? However, the government of Pakistan has consistently refused to allow Khan to be questioned directly by international investigators, reinforcing suspicions in Washington that investigations into the network are far from complete.

Islamabad's response to international concerns has been that the controls on its nuclear program are "foolproof" and that the A.Q. Khan network is a "closed chapter." It has put in place strengthened command and control measures and improved physical security of nuclear facilities, while refining its personnel reliability program. Legislative and bureaucratic mechanisms have also been introduced to provide legal backing and governmental capacity for stronger nonproliferation controls. Crucial assistance and advice on such matters has come from the United States.

Clearly, nuclear matters in Pakistan are closely intertwined with broader security issues in the country. Hence, periodic appraisals such as the one by Gregory and discussions over Islamabad's nuclear security capabilities are likely to continue in the near future.

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