Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the enemy within

January 6, 2011

m1Steve Coll, the president of the New America Foundation and a South Asia expert, has raised the issue of the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the wake of the assassination of the governor of most populous Punjab state by one of his bodyguards. It’s a question that comes up each time Pakistan is faced with a crisis whether it a major act of violence such as this or a political/economic meltdown or a sudden escalation of tensions with India obviously, but also the United States.

Pakistan’s security establishment bristles at suggestions that it could be any less responsible than other states in defending its nuclear arsenal, and its leaders and experts have repeatedly said that the professional army is the ultimate guardian of its strategic assets.

But Coll in a blog at  The New Yorker says at some stage in a domestic insurgency when your own people are fighting you, the lines between the guerrillas and the security forces often get  blurred with dangerous consequences. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 incensed by her decision to send the Indian army into the holiest Sikh shrine to flush out militants a few months before. 

 The Pakistani police officer who killed governor Salman Taseer was similarly no Lee Harvey Oswald, but a regular government employee who was apparently angry over the governor’s strident defence of a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, a case that exposed deep rifts in Pakistani society.  Coll writes :

At a certain point the violence of insurgency and counterinsurgency among people sharing language, geography, faith, and culture becomes so intimate that it is no longer possible to reliably vet friends from foes.

Pakistan’s growing nuclear stockpile – about which we wrote here – is under the lock and key of the military. Coll says the Punjab governor’s killing was a reminder that  one shouldn’t be too dismissive of the possibility of a breach in the nuclear security systems by an insider, however remote.

Taseer’s betrayal should give pause to those officials in Washington who seem regularly to express complacency, or at least satisfaction, about the security of Pakistan’s arsenal.

The possibility of  subversion  is something that has repeatedly come up in the context of the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.  Former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson  spoke about this during a February 2009 briefing for special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, according to diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks and published by Britain’s Guardian. ” Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GOP facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who retired after three years as the U.S. Department of Energy’s director of intelligence and counter-intelligence, preceded by two decades at the CIA, echoed the same in the July/August 2009 issue of Arms Control Today:

Purely in actuarial terms, there is a strong possibility that bad apples in the nuclear establishment are willing to cooperate with outsiders for personal gain or out of sympathy for their cause. Nowhere in the world is this threat greater than in Pakistan. . . . Anything that helps upgrade Pakistan’s nuclear security is an investment.

It’s not just a lone ranger  or religious fanatics  that the world must be worried about, argued a writer on the Indian National Interest blog in an article headlined Fear of the Jewel Thief.   The threat could also be from elements in the Pakistan army itself, however small, who harbour visions of a fundamentalist pan-Islamist state.  A rather chilling prospect and one that India especially is worried about given the hostility betwen the two military establishments. U.S. journalist Seymour Hersh wrote about a conversation he had with Indian intelligence officers in  a piece for the New Yorker in November 2009 in which they told him the thing that worried them most was not radical clerics  taking over the country but  “those senior ofifcers in the Paskistan army who are Caliphates – or believers in a fundamentalist pan-Islamic state.”

But Retired Pakistan Brig. Gen. Feroz Hassan Khan, a former director of arms control and disarmament affairs in the Strategic Plans Division,  said in a piece in Arms Control that while some of the fears over nuclear security were valid, many were overblown. Some were deliberatedly mis-stated to paint the image of a reckless state.   While concerns  relating to theft of material, sabotage, unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, and even  insider-outsider collaboration were valid, the idea that somebody in the armed forces would collaborate with militant groups to steal weapons was bizarre.

Pakistan, he points out, isn’t new to the nuclear game. It has three decades of experience in producing, transferring, and storing fissile stocks and weapons. Pakistani security managers have also learned to put in place detection equipment and security barriers, as well as set up checkpoints and customs posts. Such types of performance are easily measurable and of course can always be improved. No security can be 100 percent foolproof including that of the United States.

But Pakistan was aware of the dangers and had taken important steps, especially since the September 11 attacks that dramatically changed the security environment in the region following the arrival of foreign troops in Afghanistan and the exponential rise of militant groups since then, Khan says. Indeed Pakistan’s nuclear programme was under the world’s microscope more than any other country’s.

Pakistan had improved its supervisory procedure for military and scientific manpower.  Two identical programs for employment security were created: the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) and the Human Reliability Program (HRP), for military and civilian personnel, respectively. A security clearance system of annual, semiannual, and quarterly review was created. Counter Intelligence Teams were created to act as the daily eyes and ears of the Strategic Plans Division Weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports for the security of all organizations are maintained by the SPD to prevent theft, loss, or accident.

(File picture of  Hatf-VI missile.)










I agree with brig. Gen. feroz’s analogy. The possibility of radicals terrorists pouncing on USA nuclear arsenal are more neare to the truth than the few pebbles which Pakistan or Indiapossess. The second possibility is that the Russian nukes, which are too many, could get into the hnds of chechenians who would be prepared to take the risk more than any other groups!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Two days ago, U.S. Democrat Senator Giffords was shot by a deranged 22-year old. Could we infer that U.S. nuclear weapons program was under threat? No.

Is there a way to reassure the print media that if left to itself, Pakistan can manage its domestic security situation very well?

One wonders why journalists like Miglani didn’t squeak about the safety and security of the American nuclear arsenal when the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11, or the safety of the British arsenal after London’s 7/7 terrorist attack, or that of India’s atomic bombs after last year’s Mumbai episode, or even that of Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant that is within reach of Hezbollah?

On the contrary, relatively informed people in the United States and even in India endorse Pakistan’s claim that the initial vulnerability of Pakistan’s strategic assets is over and nuclear weapons are fully secure under multi-layered safeguards.

Nuclear weapons are not a source of instability, insecurity and arrogance for Pakistan. They are rather a source of confidence and responsibility.

We should avoid the tendency to link every incident to the safety and security of nuclear weapons program!

Posted by zahirhkazmi | Report as abusive

On the contrary , IAEA , the global nuclear watch dog have not only appreciated Pakistan’s NSAP (Nuclear security action plan ) but has regraded it as a bench mark for other nuclear powers to follow. More over there lies no connection between the assassinations of personalities and safety and security of any state’s nuclear programs as strategic command and control structures in nuclear weapons states , such as Pakistan, operate within institutional frame work and best practices.

Best regards

Posted by M112003 | Report as abusive

Fear caused by paranoi is the background of USA worries about the Pakistan, North Korea and Iran nuclear programmes.These programs are meant to prevent USA hegemony in the respective regions. These programs are meant for the first strike possibility on the European continent and the American cities. The USA is reviewing the option with its allies to bring in Pakistan into NATO set up. Turkey on the other hand is slowly but definitely slipping out of the NATO arena and plan to make the alliance with Iran and Pakistan. 2011 is the key year for decisions. Wikileak should have brought this info out from the diplomatic cables, but the news media which has bought the 250000 odd cables are not publishing all of them yet for some unknown reasons?

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Pakistan’s nuclear capability is certainly a ticking time bomb. States like Pakistan, who do not have the mind or an effective mechanism to control incidents of violence, need to be reigned in, especially when their nuclear capability can have serious safety impilcations to neighbouring states. Moreover, Pakistan was never known to be an honest neighbour, or even a reliable remote ally. Their intentions and deeds were always in question.

Posted by VILLURAN | Report as abusive

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