Special to The Tribune
Shyam Bhatia in London
India and Pakistan came dangerously close to a nuclear confrontation on at least five occasions in the past 20 years, according to a visiting Pakistani nuclear physicist, defence analyst and editor of a new book “Confronting the Bomb: Indian and Pakistani Scientists Speak Out.”
In an exclusive interview with The Tribune, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy said the most serious confrontation was at the time of the 1999 Kargil war when Pakistan launched a covert operation hoping that its soldiers would ascend the mountains and cut India’s supply routes. Tensions were high and nuclear weapons were readied for use.
“According to Bruce Ridel, former Special Adviser to the US President who was present when President Bill Clinton met Nawaz Sharif in the White House, Nawaz replied in the negative when Clinton asked him if he knew what his army was doing.”
Hoodbhoy said the first of the nuclear dramas started more than a decade earlier - during Operation Brass Tacks in 1987 - just when Pakistan acquired the bomb and sent a message to India: Don’t get closer.
“General Sundarji was in charge on the Indian side. He was a man who was gung ho about putting Pakistan in its right place. Here was a man who was terribly in love with nuclear weapons and used to say India doesn’t need more than five nuclear weapons - for Karachi, Quetta, Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad.”
Hoodbhoy said when tensions peaked over Kashmir in 1990 and there was an exodus of Kashmiri refugees into Pakistan, Islamabad again moved its nuclear weapons from Kahuta to the Chaklala air force base on to F16s. “That’s when the Americans are said to have known about it and conveyed a message to the Indians to back off.”
In 2002, soon after the attack on India’s Parliament by Jaish-e-Mohammed, New Delhi invoked Operation Parakaram to “stare down” Pakistan. “Pakistan warned India by saying, “We’ve got nukes.”
Had India crossed the international border, it would have been confronted by a nuclear holocaust. Of course, Pakistan would have had to face one too.
“In 2008 at the time of the attacks in Mumbai, there were voices that said that it was the time to ready nuclear weapons. I was in a TV studio with General Hamid Nawaz.
“When the anchor asked what should be done if India attacked, General Nawaz replied: Let’s nuke them before they get too close to us.”
Safe-keepers of Pak weapons
Hoodbhoy said he himself was against nuclear weapons. “I want both countries to get rid of nukes. I want them to shake hands and embrace each other. India and Pakistan are cultural cousins. Let’s not let the Arabs divide us.”
He added that current concerns within Pakistan about the future safety and security of the country’s nuclear arsenal stem from worries about what would happen if Islamic extremists, or jihadists, got their hands on nuclear weapons.
“They believe the Government of Pakistan has to be destroyed for Islamic order to take over. So there is no limit to this madness. Even the Pakistan army which had as its recruiting slogan - Jihad in the name of God - today has had to distance itself from the jihadis.
“If a nuclear weapon gets stolen...if fissile material is stolen...that could have catastrophic consequences. A stolen nuclear weapon could be detonated in principle anywhere in the world and the most likely would be either a city in India or a city in Pakistan. You might ask why in Pakistan? Its beyond comprehension. But then, also beyond comprehension is why a Muslim would blow himself up in a mosque (in Pakistan).”
Currently, the custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) of the Pakistan army which is made up of 12,000-15,000 soldiers headed by General Khalid Kidwai.
The SPD claims to have complete control over weapons by virtue of installing electronic locks, enhancing perimeter protection and having a Personnel Reliability Programme (PRP).
“Electronic locks are things that are installed and require keys. The keys are similar to how you protect your email and computer from predators,” explained Hoodbhoy.
“Permissive Actions Links, known as PALS, are devices that enable the nuclear weapon to explode if and when desired and only when they pass through strict environmental tests - environmental meaning that certain conditions have to be fulfilled. For example, if it is a bomb to be dropped from an aircraft, then it’ll experience zero gravity for a while...or if it is a bomb installed for a missile, then that missile has to experience acceleration and so forth.”
He said one of the key features of the safety programme was the institution of the Personnel Reliability Programme, devised with the help and funding of the US.
“That entails asking prospective employees, which means soldiers and others involved with nuclear weapons, to pass a battery of tests.
“To the extent that I know, they ask individuals about their religious affiliations. Of course, all of them are Muslim, but do they belong to the Wahabi sect, the Deobandhi, to this or that Sufi sect? And who are their friends? Who are the people they work with? All that goes into forming the PRP.
“What’s plainly dangerous is that if Pakistan continues to radicalise - at this rate - things might get out of the army’s control. So paradoxically, a strong Pakistan army is probably a better guarantor of stability than a Pakistani state that disintegrates. And India should recognise that.
“Even though the Indian and Pakistani armies are at loggerheads over a number of issues, the Pakistan army is necessary for India’s continued survival.”