World jittery over security of Pak nukes
The likelihood of Al-Qaida getting its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons keeps many in the US awake despite President Barack Obama’s recent expressions of confidence in the security at these facilities. These concerns are likely to be discussed at the Nuclear Security Summit, which started here on Monday.
Analysts say Pakistan’s steadfast refusal to let the US interrogate rogue scientist AQ Khan, who sold nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, has also seriously undermined international non-proliferation efforts and fed the belief that Pakistan may be the weakest link in Obama’s non-proliferation efforts.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the US Department of Energy in the George W. Bush administration, says, “You cannot exclude the possibility that the weapons may be targeted by terrorists... The problem is people get too comfortable that there is a low probability of this happening. But the question is, is there zero probability?”
Pakistani fears that its nuclear arsenal could be in jeopardy in the event of a conflict with archrival India prompted it to locate most of these facilities in the north and west of the country and around the capital, Islamabad. Presence of the Taliban and Al-Qaida in tribal areas straddling Pakistan’s western border have put these facilities in the terrorists’ backyard.
“Pakistan’s military has a 10,000-person force specifically designed to protect nuclear facilities. The problem is that Pakistan is in a bad neighbourhood,” said Ken Luongo, a former director of the Office of Arms Control and Non-proliferation at the US Department of Energy.
Pakistan’s record was tarnished when the father of its nuclear programme, AQ Khan, confessed in 2004 to supplying nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Pakistan has rebuffed US efforts to interrogate Khan.
Mowatt-Larssen says denial of access to AQ Khan undermines US non-proliferation efforts. “The importance of pending requests for US access to Khan lies in the broader issues of ensuring no remnants of his network remain active and to enhance the credibility of international non-proliferation efforts,” he said.
Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research at the University of Bradford, says the US and the international community does not consider the AQ Khan case closed “but they do not want to create difficulties for either the Pakistani army, the ISI or the Pakistani government at this time. They, therefore, are not making a great fuss.”
The fear that Al-Qaida may get its hands on nuclear technology is very real. Osama bin Laden has declared it his religious duty to obtain a nuclear weapon. Two senior Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission scientists — Sultan Bashirrudin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed — travelled to Afghanistan in 2000 and again shortly before 9/11 for meetings with Laden. However, it appears nuclear know-how was not transferred to the terrorist leader.
Pakistan’s nuclear facilities have in recent years been the target of terrorist attacks. In a report last year, Gregory documented three such incidents -- a strike on the Sargodha nuclear missile storage facility on November 1, 2007; an attack on Pak’s Kamra nuclear airbase by a suicide bomber on December 10, 2007; and an August 20, 2008 attack at several entry points to one of the armament complexes at the Wah Cantonment by Pak Taliban suicide bombers.
Still, most analysts say security of its nuclear facilities is top priority for Pakistan. “These are the country’s crown jewels and are the most closely guarded inanimate objects in Pakistan,” said Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center.
Pakistan has been reluctant to reveal the location of its nuclear facilities to the US. Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association says this is because it worries that the US may take action if it feels institutional control in Pakistan appears to be breaking down. “How concerned should we be about security at Pak nuclear facilities is hard to know given the opacity of its nuclear sector,” Kimball said.
In a bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani at Blair House on Sunday, Obama discussed these nuclear security concerns. The White House said the Pakistani leader “indicated his assurance that Pakistan takes nuclear security seriously and has appropriate safeguards in place.” Prior to heading to Washington for the nuclear summit, Gilani said his country was committed to acting as a responsible nuclear weapons state and that his country's nuclear weapons are secure.