Washington, Feb. 17: Pakistan, firmly in the dock after the recent exposure of its nuclear black market, has been forced into action to control its nuclear material and technology.
The US and Pakistan, working together to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, have taken steps to prevent Islamabad’s knowhow on atomic bombs from falling into the hands of terrorists — especially if General Pervez Musharraf is killed or overthrown.
Richard Boucher, the state department’s spokesperson, confirmed that “we have had discussions with them (Pakistanis) about safety of nuclear materials and technology”. He cited the talks as “another example of why it is important to safeguard all that expertise and material”.
There has been a rash of reports here in the last few days about steps taken by the Americans to impose controls on Pakistan’s nuclear assets in the light of the scandal surrounding Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Islamabad’s nuclear programme.
NBC Television carried a detailed report on how a “US Liaison Committee” is working to guard Pakistan’s nuclear bombs. “Meeting every two months, they are helping Pakistan develop state-of-the-art security, including secret authorisation codes for the arsenal,” NBC said.
Boucher denied the network’s report, but would only go so far as to say that talks have been held with Pakistan on securing nuclear material and technology.
“We are prevented by law and the (Nuclear) Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), for that matter, from getting involved in the safety of nuclear weapons, questions involving nuclear weapons,” he said.
Experts here believe that if the US and Pakistan are working together to safeguard nuclear material and technology, it is unlikely that actual weapons will not be covered by those steps.
But because of America’s non-proliferation laws and its signature on NPT, the spokesperson has to walk on a fine line without stepping on the wrong side of domestic legislation and US treaty obligations.
Intelligence assessments here are that Pakistan’s nuclear bombs are not kept fully assembled. They are stored with their fissile cores separated from the non-nuclear components.
If such is, indeed, the case, the joint US-Pakistan effort to ensure the safety of nuclear material could cover the bombs as well. Technically, the Americans would not be violating NPT or domestic laws as long as those weapons are not fully assembled.
Sources here said that despite Musharraf’s assertions to the contrary, top Pakistani officials have told the US that Islamabad’s nuclear assets are vulnerable.
It is understood that ongoing talks between Pakistan and the US involve — in addition to secret authorisation codes for nuclear material — security of the kind that is enforced at American nuclear installations.
The Americans are expected to encourage Pakistan to disassemble even their assembled nuclear weaponry and store components in separate locations. The effort would ensure that no individual or group can get hold of all the components and put together a nuclear bomb.
It is here that India’s role becomes crucial. The Americans believe that it would be easier to convince Islamabad to take these steps if the Indo-Pakistan peace process gains momentum and Islamabad no longer sees it necessary to keep atom bombs in readiness as a deterrent against any attack from India.