Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the enemy within
Steve 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.)