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Nuclear Fallout From Imploding Pakistan?

Nuclear Fallout From Imploding Pakistan?

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

A wide range of observers, from then-US President Bill Clinton to peace activists everywhere, saw South Asia as the scariest place on earth in the early months of 2002. The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of a million Indian and Pakistani troops across the border in Kashmir seemed to threaten an imminent nuclear war. Events in Pakistan alone have sufficed now to make the subcontinent the scariest spot in the world, and for a very similar reason.

The Musharraf-declared martial law in Pakistan has created a situation full of agonizing uncertainties ahead. The most horrendous prospect, however, is of a nuclear fallout.

Many analysts have mentioned this particular possibility in passing. The general tendency, however, has been to shy away from what specifically it can mean.

The subcontinent, of course, has never been free from nuclear insecurities ever since both India and Pakistan proclaimed themselves nuclear-weapon states in 1998. Right from the morrow of India's nuclear weapons test in May that year, militarists of the country have been threatening the neighbor with dire nuclear nemesis. Islamabad, for its part, adopted a nuclear doctrine that retained the first-strike option.

Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, said in May 2002 that Pakistan did not want a conflict with India, but that if it came to war between the nuclear-armed rivals, he would "respond with full might." This statement was widely interpreted to mean that, if pressed by an overwhelming conventional attack from India, with superior conventional forces, Pakistan might use its nuclear weapons.

In January 2003, the general came out with the startling confession that he had been all set to unleash "an unconventional war" on India, had a single Indian soldier crossed the border into Pakistan during the previous year's tense standoff.

Less widely noticed, nuclear threats freely traded between India and Pakistan during the armed conflict in Kargil, in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, conjured up nightmarish prospects for Indians and Pakistanis who did not quite see it all as a computer game. According to a newsman who kept a tab, the nuclear threat was exchanged no less than 13 times during the conflict.

The fears voiced following Musharraf's declaration of martial law, which he and his flock prefer to call an emergency, are not about an India-Pakistan nuclear flashpoint. They are about Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands or those of warring Pakistani groups.

Reports in the media, reflecting official Western opinion, talk particularly of the opportunity offered by Pakistan's current instability to al-Qaeda hordes keen to lay their hands on the nuclear weapons. At least some reports, however, now recognize the added threat of nuclear-weapon thefts in view of faintly visible rifts in Pakistan's army. Some see the threat enhanced by the armed ethnic conflicts raging in the country's tribal areas, which supply about a quarter of Musharraf's soldiers.

How real is the possibility according to available literature and information? Pakistan is estimated to have an arsenal of 30 to 55 nuclear weapons, with 24 to 48 nuclear warheads based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). Pakistan's official claim is that these nuclear weapons are not assembled and thus comparatively safe. They insist that the fissile cores are stored separately from the non-nuclear explosives packages, and that the warheads are stored separately from the delivery systems. General Mirza Aslam Beg, former chief of army staff, once told a reporter that "mating them would take two to three days." This, however, would seem to contradict the other claim of ready-to-use weapons - a claim made more than once in relation to India.

According to experts, Pakistan's primary reliance on HEU makes its fissile materials particularly vulnerable to diversion. HEU can be used in a relatively simple gun-barrel-type design, which could be within the means of non-state actors who intend to assemble crude nuclear weapons.

The security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal became a major concern of the Washington-headed West, which had been far less bothered about South Asia's nuclear fate despite all its lip service to the cause of nonproliferation, in the days following 9/11. Within two days of the tragedy, Pakistan's military, under the watchful eye of a Musharraf favorite, Lieutenant-General Khalid Kidwai, relocated the weapons described as the country's "crown jewels" to six "secret locations." General Musharraf was then claimed to have sacked his intelligence chief and other officers and detained suspected retired nuclear weapons scientists, in an attempt to "root out extremist elements that posed a potential threat to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal."

Lt.-Gen. Kidwai has ever since been a regular visitor to Washington, presumably with a mission to offer periodical reassurances about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Islamabad, however, has also consistently claimed that it was not ready to compromise security by cooperation with even the George Bush administration in this regard.

But serious doubts have been raised about the much-vaunted secrecy. The known links of Pakistan's intelligence agencies, past and present, with the Taliban and other extremists do not constitute reassurance in this regard.

The suicide bomb attack of November 1 on an airbase in Sargodha, the site of major missiles, was not, of course, directly related to an extremist nuclear mission. But it did demonstrate the vulnerability of military installations and facilities under the strictest security to militant attacks.

The claim to nuclear secrecy faced a far more formidable challenge in August 2007. A CNN report, obviously based on official briefing, said that Washington and the Pentagon knew of Pakistan's secret nuclear sites. The motive behind the disclosure has been a matter of debate in intelligence circles. So has been its impact on Islamabad. At least some observers suspect that the "leak" may have led to yet another relocation of the sites which, according to experts, may include mines and tunnels.

The claim also raises questions about the threat to the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenals from the leader of the world's "anti-terror alliance," of which Musharraf's Pakistan is a major part.

As early as October 2001, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), envisaged scenarios of US interventions in situations closely similar to Pakistan's current nuclear context. "During times of relative political and social normalcy, the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is probably adequate," he argued in a paper, "(but) fallout from Pakistan's decision to cooperate with the United States following the September 11 terrorist attacks may severely test Pakistan's security system throughout its nuclear weapons complex. Instability in Pakistan could make its nuclear weapons and stocks of nuclear explosive material dangerously vulnerable to theft."

He went on: "If domestic instability leads to the downfall of the current Pakistani government, nuclear weapons and the means to make them could fall into the hands of a government hostile to the United States and its allies."

Albright added: "Scenarios include attempts to steal fissile material or nuclear weapons, the successful theft of sensitive items, or the realization of dramatic weaknesses in material accounting, control and protection systems at particular facilities."

Albright then comes up with suggestions that few in South Asia can contemplate with equanimity. One suggestion is that, "If Pakistan suffers a coup by forces hostile to the United States, the US military should be ready to provide security over the nuclear weapons (or even to take the weapons out of Pakistan entirely) without the permission of the Pakistani authorities."

He does not raise a more reassuring prospect when he says: "Although such responses appear possible in theory, their implementation could be extremely difficult and dangerous. A US military action to seize or cripple Pakistan's strategic nuclear assets may encourage India to take similar action, in essence to finish the job. Even if India does nothing, a new Pakistani government may launch any remaining nuclear weapons at US forces or against India."

Albright reserves the most horrendous of prospects for the final scenario he foresees. Says he: "In addition, removing the nuclear weapons would not be enough. The new government would inherit the facilities to make nuclear weapons. Extensive bombing would thus be required at several nuclear sites.... These types of attacks risk the release of a large amount of radiation if they are to ensure that the facility is not relatively quickly restored to operation."

All this only goes to show the extent to which democracy in Pakistan can be a matter of life and death for millions in South Asia.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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