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Are Pakistan’s nuclear assets safe?

Rashid Naeem Khan

With the recent surge in the suicidal attacks in Pakistan, fears have been raised about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. The way these terrorists have carried out terrorist attacks all over the country, shows that they have the capability and can strike at will. However there is another segment who thinks that not only the activities of Taliban are posing a threat to the Pakistan’s nuclear assets, but the presence of organisations like black water on the soil of Pakistan is equally dangerous.

Recently, Pakistan’s president Zardari handed over the command of National Command Authority (NCA), to the Prime Minister. Some argue that he did it because Army did not trust him. But the fact of the matter is whether it remains with President or Prime Minister, Army is the sole power that controls the nuclear arsenal. Key cabinet ministers and the Army, Navy and Air Force heads are also the members of the NCA, which controls the country’s nuclear programme, including deployment and the use of the weapons.

After the debacle of 1971, Pakistan has developed an extensive nuclear weapons complex. Prior to its nuclear tests in May 1998, successive Pakistani governments tried to hide many aspects of its nuclear weapons program while simultaneously revealing enough to convince India and the rest of the world that it had workable nuclear weapons.

In the wake of 9/11, some grave concerns were raised in Western media about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. America feared that its nuclear assets may fall in the hands of Al-Qaeda and offered Pakistan nuclear security assistance which included the sharing of best practices and technical measures to prevent unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons, as well as contribution to physical security of storage facilities and personnel reliability. It is also believed that the US also provided Pakistan with Permissive Action Links (PALs) in 2003. However, Pakistan insists that it has developed PALs for its warheads without assistance. PALs require a code to be entered before a weapon can be detonated.

Islamabad has devised a comprehensive system which requires that at least three people authenticate launch codes for nuclear weapons. Moreover, the nuclear assets are stored at more than 5 different places, and to ensure their protection  the nuclear war heads and the missile are stored separately. Security at nuclear sites is the responsibility of a 10,000-member security force, commanded by a two-star general. Pakistan’s command and control over its nuclear weapons is compartmentalized and includes strict operational security. The government’s command and control system is based on “C4I2SR”(command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, information, surveillance and reconnaissance). Islamabad’s Strategic Command Organization has a three-tiered structure consisting of the National Command Authority (NCA), the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), and the Strategic Forces Commands.

After the reports that some Pakistani scientists could have been involved in nuclear proliferation, once again doubts were raised about the safety of nuclear assets, nevertheless, Pakistan undertook a lot of important steps like improving personnel security, strengthening export control laws and participation in international nuclear security cooperation programs have improved Pakistan’s security situation in recent years.

There is no doubt that Taliban have succeeded in carrying out terrorists attacks at some strategic places. However, there is no danger to Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Pakistan has developed nuclear assets on its own, in spite of the opposition of the whole world, and it has the capacity to safeguard its nuclear assets as well. India has raised more concern about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and some segments within America also expressed their fears.

 But, the US defence secretary, Robert Gates has shown satisfaction about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, ‘The US is comfortable with the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, in part thanks to American-sponsored safety mechanisms.’ According to some reports, after Pakistan’s nuclear tests Bush administration has given more than 100m dollars for Pakistan’s technical and security mechanism. Pakistan has a comprehensive plan for the safety of the nuclear weapons, and the safety of nuclear weapons is beyond any doubt. So, there is no danger that they may fall in the hands of Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

The presence of Black Water (its working with a lot of different names) in Pakistan is more serious a problem. Black water has been working alongside the CIA in different areas. Over here in Pakistan, the presence of such organisations is creating a sort of unrest in the country. As some reports suggest that just in Islamabad, they have hired more than 200 houses to accommodate their staff. Same is the case with Peshawar.  In the last couple of months some incidents have taken place in which these foreigners who move in vehicles with no registration numbers or fake registration numbers and carrying weapons misbehaved with local people. Such vehicles were  stopped by Police. Later on they were released in mysterious circumstances. In some cases even diplomats were found in such vehicles. There are some privileges for diplomats, but they have to follow certain code of conduct. These matters should be taken seriously by relevant circles.

There are some people within the country who believe that the growing attacks are not carried out by Taliban alone as they don’t have the capability to carry out such operations. It is some foreign country or some foreign agency which is behind all this and their main objective is to create an environment where questions are raised about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and gave them an opportunity to intervene. There are reports that America has made a plan by which it would take control of nuclear weapons once it falls in the hands of terrorists

This would be a highly unwise development. There is no doubt that Pakistan has developed nuclear assets and has a comprehensive plan for their safety, so any attempt to intervene in any manner may prove counterproductive. A survey was conducted in earlier 2009 in Pakistan, ‘Who is the greatest threat to Pakistani Nuclear Assets?’ According to results, 57 percent Pakistani’s believe America, 35 percent believe Israel, 10 percent believe India and only 8 percent believe Taliban.

(The writer, a Chevening Scholar at the University of Nottingham, and is doing masters in International Security and Terrorism. )

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