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Are Pakistani Nukes In Safe Hands?

By Rahil Yasin

02 July, 2008

LAHORE: Political uncertainty, deals with militants, judges movement, army's falling morale, and AQ Khan's so-called network about the alleged selling of nukes technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea raises new concerns among the world leaders about the possible theft of Pakistan's nuclear assets by religious extremists which might be resulted in real threat to the United States and the West. However, Pakistani officials have assured time and again over the safety of its nuclear weapons. Sharing his views with the US Senate, Stephen P Cohen, Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy, told that Pakistan's nuclear capabilities present at least four challenges to American policy:

1) There is a small but real possibility of the next India-Pakistan crisis escalating to nuclear levels.

2) Pakistan may decide, as a matter of state policy, to extend a nuclear umbrella (or engage in nuclear sharing) with one or more Middle East states, especially if Iran acquires a nuclear device.

3) There is a hard-to-quantify risk of nuclear theft. Pakistan has a home-grown personnel reliability programme, but even this could be circumvented in a determined conspiracy.

4). There is some small chance that should Pakistan unravel, that its nuclear assets will be seized by remnant elements of the army for political, strategic, or personal purposes.

In reality, these apprehensions are based on mistaken beliefs. I want to throw light on all of the suppositions and explain that how these baseless ideas could not be taken into account. First of all, Pakistan and India could not fall into a nuclear war because both the countries have been carrying on the composite dialogue since the peace process started in January 2004. Bilateral meetings between the two sides resulted in new people-to-people contacts. Air services and cricket matches have been restored. Trains have started plying between Sindh and Rajasthan. Transport links across the Line of Control in Kashmir have been re-opened. More importantly, the intelligence services and armies of the two countries have started to cooperate in identifying terrorists who threatened attacks. Both of the countries know the consequences of a nuclear war in the form of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed as many as 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki by the end of 1945. Pakistan and India, after attaining the nuclear power, have fought Kargil war but they did not indulge into an atomic war. Both the countries will abstain from fighting an atomic war for the better future and safety of their people.

Second apprehension, that Pakistan may extend a nuclear umbrella with one or more Middle East states, also proves wrong as it is based on alleged blames that father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, AQ Khan, sold nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya which he has rejected in a telephonic interview with Washington Post recently.

In 2004 when he confessed doing that he did it under the severe pressure from the world, his own country's government and for the survival of his people.

Pakistan is not helping and is unlikely to help Middle Eastern countries acquire nuclear weapon or offer nuclear protection to them, says the editor of a new report on nuclear programmes in the Middle East. Mark Kirkpatrick, who is associated with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, told in a briefing in Washington on June 19 that the so-called Khan network of proliferators had been rolled up and was unlikely to indulge in proliferation activities again.

Experts believe North Korea provided assistance to Iran at the Syrian facility believed bombed by Israel Air Force in September 2007, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported. Pakistan always wants to establish peace in the Middle East, and has good relations with the states but it did not, does not and would not pursue a nuclear arms race in the region.

Third apprehension that there is a hard-to-quantify risk of nuclear theft of Pakistani arsenals also seems an imagination without boundaries, which does not touch the walls of the reality. President Musharraf has said every now and then that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are under "total custodial controls." Security at nuclear sites in Pakistan is the responsibility of a 10,000-member security force, commanded by a two-star general. Deputy Secretary of State John D Negroponte in testimony to Congress on November 7, 2007 expressed confidence that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were not at risk. He said he believes there is "plenty of succession planning that's going on in the Pakistani military" and that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are under "effective technical control."

Indian National Security Adviser M K Narayanan said that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is safe and has adequate checks and balances. From the above confirmations of the top nuclear advisers prove that there is no possibility of any kind of theft of Pakistan's nuclear assets. Military's stringent security system and a political climate preclude a takeover by religious extremists.

Forth apprehension that its nuclear assets will be seized by remnant elements of the army for political, strategic, or personal purposes is based on the basis of military's continuous involvement in the politics, surrender of almost 45,000 soldiers in 1971 war and the foundering morale of Army since last years operation of Lal Masjid. But the world should understand that Pakistan army is a responsible and professional army. Army remains the sophisticated and disciplined institution of Pakistan. New army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, declared that his troops would take their orders from the country's civilian leaders.

Pakistan's command and control over its nuclear weapons is also compartmentalised and includes strict operational security. Pakistan's command and control system is based on "C4I2SR" (command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, information, surveillance and reconnaissance). The system has three components -- the National Command Authority (NCA), the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), and the Strategic Forces Commands.

The NCA was established by administrative order, but now has a legal basis. The Ordinance also addresses the problem of the proliferation of nuclear expertise and personnel reliability. It outlines punishable offences related to breach of confidentiality or leakage of "secured information," gives the SPD authority to investigate suspicious conduct, states that punishment can be up to 25 years imprisonment, and applies to both serving and retired personnel, including military personnel, notwithstanding any other laws.

As a result, the Ordinance strengthens Pakistani authorities' control over strategic organisations and their personnel. It has become impossible for evil elements to steal, sell or transfer the nuclear weapons technology because of strict laws and stringent command and control system.

Rahil Yasin is a working journalist, columnist and researcher based in Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at

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