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Pakistan’s Nuclear Threat


A cacophony of protests in Pakistan greeted a recent statement by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad ElBaradei. "I fear that chaos, or an extremist regime, could take root in that country, which has 30 to 40 warheads," he said. He also expressed fear that "nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of extremist groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan."

 

But in Pakistan, few worry. The Strategic Plans Division, which is the Pakistani agency responsible for handling nuclear weapons, exudes confidence that it can safely protect the country’s "crown jewels."

 

The SPD is a key beneficiary of the recently disclosed secret $100 million grant by the Bush administration, the purpose of which is to make Pakistan’s nuclear weapons safer.

 

This money has been put to use. Indeed, ever since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a regular traffic of Pakistani military officers to and from the United States for coaching in nuclear safety techniques.

 

While multiple layers of secrecy make it hard to judge success, the improvement in the SPD’s public relations is palpable. PowerPoint presentations, guided tours of military headquarters and calculated expressions of openness have impressed foreign visitors.

 

Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of a Homeland Security and governmental affairs committee, left reassured. After a briefing by the SPD’s chief, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, Lieberman declared in a press conference, "Yes, he did allay my fears," and promised to carry that message back to Congress.

 

So, is ElBaradei needlessly alarmed? Of the two diametrically opposed opinions, which deserves greater credence?

 

The two men are looking at different things. Lieberman was impressed by how well Pakistani nuclear handlers have been tutored in the United States. ElBaradei, on the other hand, expressed a broader concern. He presumably reasoned that safety procedures and their associated technologies are only as safe as the men who use them.

 

This is the crux of the problem. Pakistan has become steadily more radicalized as the influence of Islamists increases in its culture and society. The deliberate nurturing of jihadism by the state has, over 30 years, produced extremism inside parts of the military and intelligence. Today, some parts are at war with other parts.

 

This chilling truth is now manifest. A score of suicide attacks in the last few weeks, some bearing a clear insider signature, have rocked an increasingly demoralized military and intelligence establishment. For example, an unmarked bus of the Inter Services Intelligence agency was collecting employees for work early in the morning in Rawalpindi when it was boarded by a suicide bomber who killed 25 when he blew himself up. The ISI had not recovered from this shock when, just weeks later, another bus was blown up as it entered the service’s closely guarded secret headquarters.

 

Elite commandos of the Special Services Group have fared no better. Here, the suicide bomber was an army man. Still more recently, a group of six Pakistani militants, reportedly brainwashed by clerics linked to Al Qaeda, was arrested in December for plotting suicide attacks against military targets. Their leader was revealed to be a former army major, Ahsan-ul-Haq, who had masterminded the Nov. 1 suicide attack on a Pakistan Air Force bus that killed 9 people and wounded 40 others in the city of Sargodha, where nuclear weapons are said to be stored.

 

Fearful of more attacks, military officers have begun the transition to a new, surprisingly modest lifestyle. They have given up wearing uniforms except on duty, move in civilian cars accompanied by guards in plain clothes, and no longer flout their rank in public.

 

As the rift within widens, many questions pose themselves. Can collusion between different field-level nuclear commanders – each responsible for different parts of the weapon – result in the hijacking of one complete weapon? Could jihadist outsiders develop links with sympathetic custodial insiders?

 

Many vexing questions concern the weapons laboratories and production units. Given the sloppy work culture, it is hard to imagine that accurate records have been maintained over a quarter century of fissile-material production. So, can one be certain that small, but significant, quantities of highly enriched uranium have not made their way out? More ominously, religious fervor in these places has grown enormously over the last 30 years.

 

One does not know if radical Islamists may soon acquire the technical expertise and the highly enriched uranium needed for a crude nuclear device, which could be built in-situ. But it is quite certain that, having gone to the trouble of getting it, they will use it if they can. One should not assume that London or New York will be the preferred targets because Islamabad and Delhi may be just as good – and certainly much easier. In the twisted logic of the fanatics, there is little or no difference between apostates and those who are the tools of apostates. The suicide bombings inside mosques, and in Pakistan’s public places, send exactly this message.

 

Nevertheless, we Pakistanis live in a state of denial. Even as suicide bombings escalate, criticism of religious extremists remains taboo. The overwhelming majority still attributes recent terrorist events – such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto – to the Musharraf government. But these delusions will eventually shatter. At some point we will surely see that ElBaradei’s warning makes sense.

 

 

Pervez Hoodbhoy is chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and the author of "Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality."

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