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Fresh fears over safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal

November 09, 2009 18:09 IST

While the Pakistani army and US troops continue to drive the Taliban out of their hideouts in South Waziristan, there is perhaps a dormant, but more dangerous, threat looming overhead.

There is a rising fear among Americans that there are fundamentalist elements within the Pakistani army that may rise in mutiny against the ongoing war on Taliban and take over the most vulnerable arsenal -- the nuclear warheads, writes Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker.

The ongoing war on Taliban is not looked upon favourably by most Pakistanis and Pakistani armymen, who feel they have been forced to fight against their "own men" by the Americans.

Though there have been repeated reassurances from both the Pakistani and US governments regarding the security of nuclear arsenal, the fears looms.

The recent attacks on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and the police training centres in Peshawar and Lahore were evidence enough to show that insiders from the security agencies were involved in providing logistics and in the planning of the attacks.

US President Barack Obama said at a news conference on April 29, when asked to reassure Americans that the nuke weapons would be kept away from the terrorists, said he was "gravely concerned" about the fragility of the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari.

"Their biggest threat right now comes internally," Obama said.

In the July issue of Arms Control Today, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a retired official of the US' Department of Energy's director of intelligence and counter-intelligence, spoke about the "lethal proximity between terrorists, extremists, and nuclear weapons insiders" in Pakistan.

"Insiders have facilitated terrorist attacks. Suicide bombings have occurred at air force bases that reportedly serve as nuclear weapons storage sites. It is difficult to ignore such trends," Mowatt-Larssen wrote.

"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" in America's security.

Sultan Amir Tarar, popularly known as Colonel Imam in Pakistan, is one of those disillusioned Pakistani armymen.

Colonel Imam, who retired in 1995, has worked with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for 18 years and is also said to have close links with the Taliban.

"The Americans are trying to rent out their war to us," he said.

If the Obama Administration persists, "there will be an uprising here, and this corrupt government will collapse. Every Pakistani will then be his own nuclear bomb -- a suicide bomber," Tarar said.

"The longer the war goes on, the longer it will spill over in the tribal territories, and it will lead to a revolutionary stage. People there will flee to the big cities like Lahore and Islamabad."

There are reports, though contradictory, that the US has entered into sensitive deals with the Pakistani military under which trained American forces would provide additional security to Pakistani nuclear weapons in case of crisis.

However, it is another thing if the Pakistanis trust US enough to let them know the exact location or numbers of nuke warheads.

Many Pakistanis even believe that the US does not intend to protect the Pakistani weapons, but instead wants to reduce or take control over them.

As a senior Pakistani official told Hersh, "The Americans are saying, 'We want to help protect your weapons.' We say, 'Fine. Tell us what you can do for us.' It's part of a quid pro quo. You say, also, 'Come clean on the nuclear program and we'll insure that India doesn't put pressure on it.' So we say, 'OK' "

"Both sides are lying to each other," he added

Zardari felt the US was obsessed with the vulnerability of his nation's nuclear arsenal. "In your country, you feel that you have to hold the fort for us," he said.

"The American people want a lot of answers for the errors of the past, and it's very easy to spread fear. Our army officers are not crazy, like the Taliban. They're British-trained. Why would they slip up on nuclear security? A mutiny would never happen in Pakistan. It's a fear being spread by the few who seek to scare the many."

However, the fear of mutiny is not baseless.

Apart from outside influences, there are many radical influencers within the Pakistani army who have a huge following among the troops.

There are visible changes that suggest increased influence of fundamentalist Islam among the Pakistani troops, according to The New Yorker.

According to a senior official in the Obama Administration, clerics and senior commanders preach Pakistani soldiers at the Friday prayers in army units on fundamentalism and Islamic doctrines.

Officials and journalists said soldiers and middle-level officers in the Pakistani Army were deeply influenced by talks of Zaid Hamid, a self-styled defence analyst in Pakistan who joined the mujahideen. Hamid has asked soldiers in his speeches on television to think of themselves as Muslims first, and Pakistanis next. 

According to the US official, Sunni organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir was another influence to be worried about.

The organisation's goal is to establish the Caliphate and has "penetrated the Pakistani military and now have cells in the army," the official said.