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Rising Tide Of Militancy Feeds Fears About Pakistan's Nukes

A worker in Islamabad cleans a bas-relief of the Chaghi Mountains, where Pakistan conducted its atomic explosions in 1998.
A worker in Islamabad cleans a bas-relief of the Chaghi Mountains, where Pakistan conducted its atomic explosions in 1998.
By Ron Synovitz
Advisers to U.S. President Barack Obama's administration say their worst security nightmare is the possibility that Pakistan -- a nuclear-armed country -- might fall under the control of Al-Qaeda militants.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani insists that no group will be allowed to challenge the authority of the government. Pakistani officials also insist that the country's nuclear arsenal is secure.

But U.S. officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week highlighted concerns about the security situation in Pakistan. Clinton described advances by Islamic militants in Pakistan as a "mortal threat" to the security and safety of the world.

George Perkovich, director of the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he has never been more concerned about the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamist extremists.

"I would say that I thought [the threat] was exaggerated -- that there were 10 or 12 other [threats] in Pakistan that were more probable and were also very grave -- [but] it's gotten much worse in the last few years, and you have a sense of parts of Pakistan now becoming ungovernable by the Pakistani state," Perkovich says. "Today I'm feeling like we really, really have to focus on the nuclear danger in a way that I wouldn't have said was the case until recently. It's not an exaggeration to say that there is a risk."

Locked Up Tight?

Most experts say they have no doubt that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is now under tight control by Pakistan's Strategic Plan Division -- the security structure headed by 58-year-old General Khalid Kidwai and intended to keep the weapons from falling into the hands of Islamic militants, Al-Qaeda scientists, or Indian saboteurs.

Jeff Lightfoot, assistant director of the Atlantic Council's program on international security, says he is not so worried about militants obtaining Pakistan's nuclear weapons under the army's current system of safeguards.

Lightfoot tells RFE/RL that he sees the recent extremist advances as a danger primarily to Pakistan itself -- and by extension, the wider region with Afghanistan and India.

He describes "the greatest threat" as a "gradual bleeding of Pakistani authority" that would leave large parts of the country outside central government control.

Lightfoot calls the military the "glue of the country" but questions its ability to demonstrate that it can control and defend Pakistan's borders and ensure sovereignty, something he labels "an ideology problem."

"In terms of the nuclear weapons and them falling into the hands of terrorists, the army may not necessarily be able to control all of Pakistan," Lightfoot adds, "but I don't think that necessarily translates into a breakdown of their nuclear-weapons command-and-control system."

Key Figure

Perkovich says current safeguards should ensure that any possible collapse of the civilian government in Islamabad would not affect the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons -- at least, he says, as long as General Kidwai remains in control.

"The civil government is not relevant to the control of nuclear weapons in Pakistan; it is entirely an army issue," Perkovich says. "We do have a strong sense that [Pakistan's nuclear weapons] are controlled by elements in the army that have been selected and are reliable. As long as that control by this current military leadership remains strong, then I think one can have pretty good confidence that these weapons won't be used crazily."

But Perkovich says his concern centers around what could happen if pro-Islamist elements within Pakistan's military and security forces turned against Kidwai.

"The risk on the nuclear side is that the country falls apart or has a civil war that the bad guys win," Perkovich says. "The fear comes if there is a coup within the military so that, somehow, the people now in charge within the military get dispossessed of their nuclear weapons by other people in the military who would be less responsible."

To that "first fear," however, Perkovich adds another alarming scenario: "The second fear is [if] there is basically just a takeover by the Taliban and somehow the military crumbles and flees."

Guessing Game

The size of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is classified information in Islamabad. Pakistan has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has been careful not to disclose the exact number or locations of its nuclear weapons. Estimates by experts and researchers range from around 50 nuclear weapons to as many as 150.

Former President General Pervez Musharraf declared in 2007 that the weapons were in a "disassembled state" -- most likely meaning that the warheads were kept separately from the ballistic missiles capable of delivering them to targets as far away as New Delhi, India.

General Kidwai has said that the nuclear warheads could be assembled very quickly with land- and air-delivery systems.

Seth Jones, a political scientist who is currently in Pakistan doing research for the RAND Corporation, tells RFE/RL that Pakistan has "dozens" of nuclear weapons dispersed in or near major cities throughout the country. He says that his recent visits to nuclear facilities in Pakistan suggest the country's weapons are still in a disassembled state.

"I've visited a number of the nuclear facilities [in Pakistan] and I'm fairly confident that security procedures are actually pretty good," Jones says. "The ones I've visited have included sites that hold fissile material and also that hold ballistic-missile technology -- where one could put nuclear weapons on and [that] would give Pakistan a range to target countries like India if there was an exchange."

He likens those facilities to "what one might see in China or, frankly, in the United States."

Dangerous Precedent

With his firsthand views of security for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, Jones says he is most concerned about how a destabilized government in Pakistan might promote the spread of nuclear-weapons technology out of the country or to Al-Qaeda militants.

"In most of these scenarios, still, the likelihood that nuclear weapons are going to be used or come in the hands of militants or terrorists is highly unlikely," Jones says.

But he is quick to add that "where one might get concerned...is elements of the A.Q. Khan network that were involved in building Pakistan's atomic capability -- a range of scientists that have proliferated nuclear material to North Korea, Iran, and several other places."

In that respect, he cites a lesson that was learned under previous leadership in Islamabad, before the international community was fretting publicly about any "existential threat" to the Pakistani state posed by extremists.

"We know in the past that there have been talks between members of the A.Q. Khan network and militants, including Al-Qaeda several years ago," Jones says. "So is it possible that some technology at some point falls into the hands of terrorists? I think that's a more likely scenario than actual nuclear weapons coming out of [the Pakistan army's] control."
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by: Zoltan from: Hungary
April 24, 2009 16:43
I hope the United Sates is preparing to destroy the whole nuclear arsenal of Pakistan if militants gain control of the country.<br /><br />This Pakistani case shows us that permiting an islamic country to have nuclear weapon is a threat to the civilized world.

by: umer from: lahore
April 25, 2009 13:13
such articles add to the already held strong perception that US, UK and india are invloved in conspiracy to get hold on Pakistan's nukes and this perception is certainly not helping Pakistan or the Western interests!<br />anyways, the bottom line is, <br />Keep Dreaming :) as Pakistan would keep hold of its nukes, come what may

by: Anonymous
April 25, 2009 19:52
Did civilized did not used it against other uncivilized nation(8 August Japan WWII) to zolton

by: Fraz Haider from: Rawalpindi
April 26, 2009 12:42
A country which can build, maintain and improve its nuclear arsenal against all odds has all the capability to ensure that this capability remains in safe and capable hand. Secretary Clinton’s description this weak regarding situation in Pakistan is the issue of perception or misperception.<br />Mr George Perkovich of Carnegie Endowment is a respected scholar, my suggestion to him would be to stop worrying about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons rather he should worry about the US weapons which could be found missing for hours, the sensitive nuclear weapons components and technology which can land up in a different country with that country demanding it and those nuclear facilities those have been recently reported by USNRC as below acceptable safety and security standards as stipulated in the US EPA 2005. <br />Terrorism or extremism in this region is the gift of a friend who masters in stabbing in the back. These people being most feared by the west were created, supported and funded to achieve the objective of breaking up of the former Soviet Union and some other objectives of the regional players. Now once they do not serve any good purpose to the west they are being portrayed as most fearsome creatures on God’s earth. Not that I or most of Pakistani have any soft corner for them or their ideology is appreciated or have any sympathy for them, but one thing I am sure that we Pakistanis can handle them ourselves. My sincere advice to our so called friends would be to stay away from our internal affairs and stop using Pakistan as a ladder for achieving their own objectives.<br />Notwithstanding the above, I am appreciative of Mr Jeff lightfoot, George Perkovich and Seth Jones views on Pakistan’s Command and Control System and the ability of its armed forces to take a good care of Nation’s ‘Crown Jewel’. However fears and concerns highlighted by Mr Perkovich are all about future, which is unpredictable and uncertain. If for a moment it is believed that the concerns are right and logical may I ask about thousands of much more capable nukes in the hands of possibly extremist Christians or Hindus or that matter any other religion in the world. To me this is all about gaining a ‘Total Global Dominance’ as some time back a former National Security Advisor of the US, Brizensky advised to the US in his book ‘Grand Chase Board’.<br />Visiting a Pakistani facility may not be Seth Jones dream only but many other in the US also have similar desires. May I draw your attention towards and incident which happened to a BBC correspondent about two decades back once he tried to get close to one of the site? No one except those whose business is can get close to a site what to talk of a facility housing fissile material or missile technology. Those, in this business anywhere in the world would exactly know what it means. Hence it can be easily concluded that both the claim mentioned in the story 1) Seth Jones is in Pakistan and 2) he has visited any site are baseless, misleading and with designs. <br />Being a patriotic Pakistani I am confident that we can handle our problems our self as all nations in the world do. Therefore no one should interfere with our affairs. As regards a comment regarding destruction plan of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal by the US is concerned, I would say only one thing “Anyone who tries any misadventure would dig its own grave’ <br />

by: ibsteve2u from: U.S. of A.
April 27, 2009 14:33
On the other hand, imagine how much of the world felt - knowing that our nuclear football was constantly next to somebody who didn't require actual proof of misdeeds to attack another sovereign nation.<br /><br />I'm a rather gung-ho American, but not to the point of ignoring the fact that we don't all live in the same reality around the world.<br /><br />(P.S. Speaking of differing realities: Who was it that sold the Pakistanis the hardware to design and build those nukes, again?)

by: Dolmance from: Mexico City
April 27, 2009 14:47
Let's hope the parallels between Obama and FDR don't go beyond the new President having to fix a broken American economy with a big, nasty war. <br /><br />Has anyone done a study of what would happen environmentally speaking if say India and Pakistan exchanged nuclear missiles? Because I really cannot see a nuclear armed Al Qaida not using every weapon at it's disposal.

by: Saul from: Canada
April 27, 2009 17:42
There goes the USA establishment, Pentagon, CIA and its media again. 1st Iraq on WMDs and now another Muslim country on false pretext of Nukes falling in the hands of extremists in Pakistan. Wow! The web of lies - ain't all of us familiar with them now? Most of the Western, especially US analysts, have no idea how big Pakistan is and how diverse. Besides, nukes are not like laptops that can be stolen by criminals. The way false image is being created about that poor country leads me to believe that there is far more realistic danger lurking in the dark with respect to nukes. I am 100% convinced that US establishment, Pentagon and CIA are, in collusion with Israeli and Indian lobbies, planning a small nuke attack on the US soil or somewhere in Europe, blame it on Pakistan, move against it unilaterally and try to destroy it. I hope I am proven wrong, but this is my prediction - A staged, concocted drama to destroy another Muslim country.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
April 27, 2009 20:46
&quot;destroy another Muslim country.&quot; - who cares about Pakistan. In whose interest it is to destroy that country? What profit could we expect from that?<br /><br />&quot;Besides, nukes are not like laptops that can be stolen by criminals.&quot; yes we do not expect radicals to &quot;steal&quot; nuclear weapons but to overthrow the whole Pakistani regime which is increasingly unable to control events on the ground. The real risk is that radicals can seize the power over the whole country.<br /><br />Unfortunatelly the average Pakistani is well anti-American and anti-western. If it is up to them those people would happily use those nukes at first time they would be able to.<br /><br />And unfortunatelly the &quot;state of Pakistan&quot; is only a fiction. The central government is unable to control more and more of the country. Whole Baluchistan, NWRFP pashtun territories are not controlled by Islamabad. The only regions governed centrally is Sindh and Punjab. But militants approahing Punjab quickly...<br /><br />I could only wish Fraz Haider good luck because militants are only 100 km away from Rawalpindi. If I were you I would be nervous about this fact...<br /><br />Pakistan is increasingly become a state like Algeria was in the 1990ies. Civil war is upcoming. And despite anybody says anything it is disconcerting to see chaos in a country holding nuclear weapons...

by: M. Rizwan from: Islamabad
April 28, 2009 05:41
Why US Shoul be Prepared to destroy the Pakistani Nuclear Capabilities?<br /><br />Who is Civilized in this world?<br /><br />What about the Nuclear Weapons of US, Russia, UK, France, China, Israel and India ?<br />

by: indocanadian from: canada
April 28, 2009 12:38
Sooner or later the nukes will fall into the hands of one of the number of terror organisations operating in Pakistan. (some with the blessing of the ISI)I actually worry more about the jihadis being able to builb a dirty bomb from stolen nuclear waste.I say to the world -Take away this nightmare scenario- BY HOOK OR CROOK -- Get the nukes. There are a lot of fanatics in the army and thier intelligence agencies. lets not leave things to chance.This is equivalent of finding a snake in your bedroom and going back to sleep hoping it wouldn't bite.
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