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Can terrorists get hold of Pakistan's nukes?

Last updated on: May 01, 2009 15:39 IST

Most writings and debates on possible weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats arising from Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other jihadi organisations have been focussing on the possible danger as a result of the terrorists getting hold of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

The Pakistanis themselves have been dismissing talk of such danger as unwarranted and asserting that the physical security of their nuclear arsenal is so tight that no terrorist can get hold of it. The Americans too -- at least outwardly -- give the impression of being satisfied with the measures taken by Pakistan.

The writings and debates are too narrowly focussed on the physical security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and on the danger of Al Qaeda benefiting from the expertise of sympathetic Pakistani nuclear scientists -- serving and retired. While this aspect should be of equal concern to the US and India, there are other aspects, which should be of greater concern to India and other regional countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics than to the US and the rest of the Western world.

The danger of the terrorists getting hold of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will arise only if the terrorists capture power in Pakistan after defeating the army. Despite the recent deterioration in the situation in the North West Frontier Province as a result of the increase in the activities of the Pakistani Taliban, the danger of their defeating the army and capturing power seems low at present.

The Taliban has a capability for making the entire Pashtun tribal belt in the NWFP and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas ungovernable and totally under its Wahabi influence and political writ. An embryonic Islamic Caliphate in the Pashtun belt on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a worrisome possibility. It also has the capability for organising spectacular acts of suicide and non-suicide terrorism in the non-Pashtun areas of Pakistan, including in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore, as it has already demonstrated on many occasions.

But it does not have the capability to defeat the Pakistan Army in the non-Pashtun areas and capture power in Islamabad. The Pakistan Army is not like the Afghan Army, which on its own cannot resist the Taliban. The Afghan Army of the 1990s, consisting largely of the Mujahideen trained to fight against the Soviet troops in the 1980s, could not resist the capture of Kabul by the Taliban in September, 1996. The post-9/11 Afghan National Army would not be able to resist on its own a Taliban advance into Kabul should the NATO forces be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Army is different. It is strong, well-trained, well-equipped and well-motivated. It might have closed its eyes to the depredations of the Taliban in the Pashtun belt as it had done in the past to the depredations of various tribal extremist groups in the areas adjoining the Afghan border so long as they did not threaten the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan.

Ever since Pakistan became independent in 1947, no government in Pakistan has had effective political and military control over the FATA. Successive Pakistani governments chose to avoid a confrontation with the tribal extremists in the FATA.

If the Pakistan Army today does not show the same concern as the rest of the world over the Taliban running amok in the FATA and in the Malakand Division of the NWFP, it should not be a matter for surprise. If, from time to time, it makes a pretense of acting against the Taliban it is more out of concern over the alarming reactions in the West than due to fears over any danger of their overrunning Pakistan.

If the Pakistani Taliban tries to overrun the rest of Pakistan and to capture power in Islamabad as its Afghan counterpart did in Kabul in 1996 and is trying to do so again now, the Pakistan Army will ruthlessly crush it. In view of this I would rate as low at present the danger of the Taliban, with or without the help of Al Qaeda, capturing power in Islamabad and taking control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

I would divide Pakistan's nuclear capability into three groups and grade the likely threats to them from the Taliban and other jihadi groups as follows::

a. The nuclear arsenal consisting of its stockpile of nuclear weapons: Their physical security is very tight with American inputs into strengthening it and with US monitoring of the state of physical security. Threat low unless and until the Taliban captures power in Islamabad.

b. Sensitive nuclear establishments such as the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant and the Khusab plutonium facility. Their physical security is equally tight, but there are no American inputs and monitoring. Threat low to medium.

c. Other nuclear establishments such as the Chashma nuclear power station constructed with Chinese assistance and the one at Karachi and the various sites in the NWFP and Balochistan where nuclear waste is stored: Their physical security has not received much attention either from the Pakistanis themselves or from the Americans. Moreover, since the Chinese are associated with some of them, they would not like the US to have any role in their physical security. Threat medium to high.

The greatest danger in my view is the Taliban and other jihadi groups attacking one of these less guarded facilities falling in the third group. They have the capability to target them in order to create panic in the Pakistani population and demonstrate their prowess in the non-Pashtun areas of Pakistan.

India and other regional countries should have strong reasons to be worried over this possibility because the environmental and health hazards arising from a terrorist attack on these facilities would affect not only Pakistan, but also its neighbours. A terrorist-caused Chernobyl is a danger of greater possibility than the terrorists capturing the nuclear arsenal.

It is in India's interest to nudge the US into taking more interest in the physical security of these establishments in order to prevent such an event. The present counter-terrorism co-operation between India and the US is more tactical than strategic in the form of exchange of intelligence regarding plans for a terrorist strike and extension of mutual legal assistance in the investigation of terrorist attacks as in the case of the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 26.

The only strategic co-operation is in respect of cyber and maritime security. To one's knowledge, there is very little interaction of a substantial nature relating to WMD security as a result of developments in Pakistan.

The Barack Obama Administration and whatever government comes to power in New Delhi after the elections should realise that the security and welfare of their people are closely tied to developments in Pakistan. There is a need for more intense and sustained interactions on this subject between the political leaderships and the professional experts of the two countries than has been the case at present. Among the various steps that could be considered are the setting-up of a hotline between the political establishments and the intelligence chiefs of the two countries and a joint monitoring group to monitor closely the developments in Pakistan.

At present, India's focus has been on making the US co-operate against the activities of the anti-India terrorist groups and their infrastructure in Pakistani territory. This should continue, but this should not be the only subject of co-operation between the two countries. It is necessary to expand it to cover likely threats to Pakistan's nuclear establishments. We should not allow the development of such wider interactions to be inhibited by complexes arising from past unpleasant experiences with the US.

B Raman