Forebodings about the lack of safety and theft of weapons of mass destruction in the world’s newest nuclear state, Pakistan, have been incrementally rising since the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, generating nightmarish scenarios of mushroom clouds enveloping volatile and heavily populated South Asia and of satanic non-state actors gaining access to implements of annihilation for killing and crippling thousands of humans with devastating efficiency. The actions, assurances and explanations General Pervez Musharraf’s government has tendered to assuage the world’s anxieties in this regard have fallen short of certifiable guarantees. Not a day passes without new reports and analyses warning that the worst imagined apocalyptic fears of nuclear terrorism could materialize and that Albert Einstein’s “fourth world war fought with sticks and stones” may not be a far-fetched oracle after all.
Safety of Pakistan’s nuclear explosives, fissile material and installations haunts many analysts and practitioners due to the widespread domestic unpopularity and unrest created by the military regime’s decision to support the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. The most common alarm among many US officials pertains to the possibility that the secrecy of location and storage of Pakistan’s so-called “strategic assets” could be compromised if there was an internal coup by Taliban sympathizers, ‘rogue elements’ of the military and the intelligence services, in a country whose history is replete with army overthrows of existing set-ups. This is a valid concern because of the emotional attachment religious fundamentalists of Pakistan entertain towards possession and deployment of the only ‘Islamic Bomb’ on earth. In response, Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi asserted on September 23rd that Pakistan had placed “multi-layered custodial controls with very clear command structure” on its nuclear program and that panic whistles were being “overblown”. A good month and a half later, however, came revelations in the Washington Post that Musharraf ordered an emergency redeployment of the country’s nuclear arsenal, missiles and aircraft to at least six secret new locations to prevent them from falling into irresponsible hands.
In early October, Pakistan’s chief spy General Mahmoud Ahmed was sacked owing to alleged links with Mohammed Atta, mastermind of the September 11th attacks, and the very same pro-Taliban elements that were aiming to capture the nuclear arsenal. Once again, the act was officially described as a “routine reshuffle” that had nothing to do with the impending campaign in Afghanistan or with nuclear safety. Since there is complete porosity and camaraderie of service between the army and ISI in Pakistan unlike other countries where intelligence and military are often at loggerheads, and since the ISI chief knows the ins and outs of nuclear installations, one is left to wonder how much of the nuclear factor weighed in axing Ahmed and how many more Ahmeds are presently occupying ISI desks with knowledge of nuclear secrets.
Theft or clandestine transfer of Pakistani nuclear weapons to terrorist outfits came one step nearer to reality when Osama bin Laden recently admitted to journalist Hamid Mir that Al Qaeda had acquired the capability as a ‘deterrent’ and when the IAEA conceded subsequently in the New York Times that with more than 400 cases of recorded fissile material smuggling in the last decade, renegade groups could assemble a ‘dirty bomb.’ Islamabad reflexively denied any leakage of nuclear raw material from its reservoir and the world began turning pages of the familiar script of ‘loose nukes’ in the former Soviet Union making their way into the sinister embrace of jihad. But mysteriously enough on October 23rd, Pakistani authorities arrested three top nuclear scientists with open Al Qaeda sympathies for ‘enquiry’ and kept releasing and re-arresting them until November 22nd when they were totally exonerated from all charges.
There was a catch in this hush-hush enquiry too. Islamabad admitted that two of them had visited Afghanistan regularly and “met Bin Laden at least twice during visits to Kandahar in connection with the construction of a flour mill.” What professional scientists of atomic fission and ace terrorist of the world were doing in a flour mill is anyone’s guess, but the Musharraf government is now issuing predictable ‘clarifications’ that the physicists’ visits did not lead to any transfer of dual-use technology or material. Why did it take so agonizingly long and so many sessions of interrogation for this clean chit? It is a matter worth pondering over and asking Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan’s unconvincing record and demeanor on the twin aspects of nuclear safety and theft, coupled with the never-to-be discounted probability of the downfall of Musharraf, have prompted the Bush administration to maintain an “active review” of its nuclear program. The country’s leading daily, Dawn, quoted on October 6th an official in Washington saying, “We’re studying it. We’ve not made any particular proposal. We haven’t seen any need to make any proposal at this time.” In light of latest developments like Mullah Omar’s threat of unleashing a “big plan to destroy America”, Bin Laden’s chilling interview and the uncovering of covert lives of top Pakistani nuclear scientists, it may not be too early for the ‘proposal’ to be made by Washington.
Ideally, it should be a swift pre-emptive seizure of Pakistan’s tenuously guarded “strategic assets” and minimally, it should comprise a thoroughly international and impartial investigation of all the hanky-panky happenings listed above as well as verification of the reliability of that country’s C-3 (command, control and communication) triad. The future of humanity hangs by slender threads of cast-iron nuclear safety and policing. When nations owning arsenals eschew responsibility for maintenance, accidents and fall-outs, it becomes the moral and legal right of the international community to un-proliferate them.
*Sriram Chaulia studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a Second BA in Modern History at University College, Oxford. He researched the BJP’s foreign policy at the London School of Economics and is currently analyzing the impact of conflict on Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY.