Bhutto Killing Raises Questions on Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal

New Delhi
Benazir Bhutto's assassination and the chaos it threatens to bring about once more raises worrying questions about the continuing security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. 

Pakistan is the sole Islamic state with nuclear weapons. 

It is also one where the atomic arsenal - comprising, according to experts, 60-65 warheads - is controlled almost exclusively by an increasingly Islamised military that remains the country's most powerful institution. 

The arsenal's location remains a closely guarded secret but Western intelligence sources believe the weapons are secreted in Islamabad's proximity, with the warheads and delivery systems separated. 

Islamabad's record in nuclear proliferation too is, at best, dubious. 

Its top atomic scientist Abdul Qader Khan was exposed in 2004 as the head of an international black market operation in nuclear technology working reportedly in collusion with the military, leaking lethal secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea in exchange for large sums of money and long range missile designs. 

Pakistani nuclear scientists are even believed to have travelled to Afghanistan to meet with the Al Qaeda leadership when the Taliban controlled Kabul before being ousted by the US-led coalition in 2001. 

India and Western analysts caution that radicalised elements within Pakistan's powerful military and security establishment could gain access to the country's nuclear weapons if the debilitating war of attrition against the jihadists continued. 

They cite the instance of a large number of Pakistani soldiers, including officers, opting to surrender to militants rather than fight them in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan and in Swat north of Islamabad, as an instance of the military's burgeoning radicalisation. 

Analysts said these were growing signs of fraying loyalties in the Pakistani army with its normally robust command and control system appearing wobbly and underlying the danger to its cohesiveness. 

"A situation threatening the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and collapse of its command and control could only be brought about by subversion from within the military establishment. Were this to happen it would signify the Islamists' penetration of the last bastion of credible power in Pakistan, a situation that frightens the world," former Brigadier Arun Sahgal of the United Service Institute in New Delhi said. 

In early December, President Pervez Musharraf assumed formal control of the National Command Authority (NCA) that he established in 2000 to manage the country's nuclear weapons, two years after Pakistan detonated six atomic devices. 

The NCA includes the associated Employment Control Committee (EEC), the Development Control Committee (DCC) and the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), all overseen by a select group of officials, dominated by the military. 

As the names suggest, the DCC deals specifically with the planning and development of nuclear forces, while the ECC deals with what can be defined broadly as nuclear strategy, including targeting policy and the conduct of nuclear operations. 

The SPD acts as the secretariat for the NCA. It is located in the Joint Services Headquarters (under the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, the CJCSC) and is headed by a three-star officer from the army. 

ECC members include the ministers of foreign affairs, defence and interior; the CJCSC, the three service chiefs, the director-general of the SPD and technical advisors as required. This is the only committee authorised to decide on employing nuclear weapons. 

Pakistan's government head - Musharraf for now - also chairs the DCC. Other members include the prime minister as the vice-chairman, the CJCSC, the three service chiefs, the director-general of the SPD and representatives of strategic organisations and the scientific community. 

The nuclear forces are placed under the strategic commands of each service. At present, the Army Strategic Forces Command (ASFC) has a confirmed existence and exercises operational control over the Missile Group North and the Missile Group South. 

"But it would take little time for the (nuclear) command and control network to collapse if Pakistan slid toward anarchy. Should that happen, sympathisers of radical Islamists within the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies could very possibly assist militant groups in acquiring the wherewithal of a nuclear weapon" Harsh Pant, a nuclear analyst at Kings College in London, said. 

Last month, Pakistan confirmed that the US was helping ensure the security of its nuclear weapons, but declined to elaborate. 

It reiterated that the security of Pakistan's nuclear assets was "foolproof" and advised against creating irresponsible alarm. In an official statement, Pakistan declared that it was capable of defending its nuclear interests and cautioned those "contemplating misadventures". 

US media reports, meanwhile, declared that Washington had spent $100 million in helping secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons against theft and accidents, a claim Islamabad denied. 

Some Western experts believe that the US has fitted Pakistan's nuclear warheads with permissive action links, or security devices that control their activation, soon after aligning with Islamabad in the war against terror after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Pakistan refutes that claim too. 

(Rahul Bedi can be contacted at shahji@spectranet.com)


More by :  Rahul Bedi

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