The command and control of nuclear weapons in the Islamic State of Pakistan are of great concern for the outside world. The news on the ground is bad and it is getting worse. Pakistan has one of the five largest nuclear arsenals in the world. According to last year’s Global Fissile Material Report, it is thought to have 90 to 110 nuclear warheads.
But the security of the nuclear weapons is not the sole concern. The very fabric of the State itself is mutating towards Islamic extremism. With every passing day, the danger of nuclear weapons, fissile material and even scientists finding their way to terror groups increases. Pakistan’s polity — where radical Islam is creeping into everyday life — is now riddled with frequent attacks on sites that are thought to store the country’s nuclear weapons. These combine to produce a perilous instability. Even more dangerously, the Pakistani military establishment may have elements within itself that are allied with the Taliban. In such a scenario, an attack of the kind on the Minhas airbase in Kamra could become frighteningly successful.
That attack was not the first. Earlier in 2011, an assault was mounted on another facility at the largest Pakistan navalbase in Karachi, also believed to house nuclear weapons. In 2009, the nerve centre of Pakistan’s army — its general head quarters in Rawalpindi — came under attack. It is as if terror groups can pick and choose their targets at will in Pakistan. None of these assaults was a small-time attempt. They were commando operations with rocket launchers and machine guns. Tellingly, they took out at least as many soldiers as terrorists.
Pakistan has refused to sign the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. With its new nuclear reactor at Khushab, Pakistan will add more nuclear bombs to its already massive nuclear arsenal.
The terror architecture has robust foundations in the Islamic republic. Pakistan is the laboratory of terror groups that have probably been nurtured by the State over the last four decades. Some of these terror groups have now turned on the State. They demand the formation of a puritan regime in Pakistan with sharia law.
This is not a political demand. These are radical extremists armed to the teeth, and having a mass base amongst the population. But the looming threat has not stopped Pakistan from continuing to nurture terror groups. The Pakistani army and its ‘secret service’, the Inter-Services Intelligence, still see profit in the terror option. The fact that Osama bin Laden was just outside Pakistan’s most important military training establishment in Abbotabad underlined this dramatically. Pakistan is hooked to the low cost-high returns proxy wars, which are against America.
In many countries, democracy mitigates extremism. In Pakistan, however, the exact opposite is at play. The party widely tipped as the next winner in Pakistan’s elections is lead by the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. It is believed to be very close to the current army leadership. The party has General Hamid Gul in a mentor’s role. Gul was the chief of the ISI who fast-tracked extremist militia groupings as a proxy war tactic for Pakistan. Should Khan’s party make it in the general elections, the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists could come one step closer. Given the possibility — some futurists will say the certainty — of terrorists laying their hands on nuclear material through an attack on one of Pakistan’s nuclear plants, the international community has to seriously consider its options.
The options are few and fraught with danger. At a minimum, Pakistan must be a party to the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Diplomatic efforts round the world need to stress the removal of the opacity from the Pakistani nuclear stance. Any new reactors must come under this regime. The other option which occasionally crops up — of America or Israel ‘taking out’ the nuclear weapons — can be tried but will probably have an unpredictable outcome.
Pakistan is playing a dangerous game with unforeseeable circumstances. The more the international community vacillates, the greater the danger. Pakistan insists that the command structure of its nuclear weapons is foolproof — it’s relevant to ask who controls them. Diplomatic efforts must focus on ensuring that the next 9\11 — if it happens — is not under a mushroom cloud.