Amidst the ongoing disorder in Pakistan, a nuclear weapon falling into jihadi hands is a grave concern for neighboring states as well as for the global community. There is mounting apprehension in Washington about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons as the turmoil in the country intensifies. There have been some reports indicating that the Bush administration could deploy U.S. forces to guard Pakistan's nuclear arsenal if the political tumult and violence worsen. Amidst all this, Pakistan has maintained that its nuclear weapons are “as safe as those of any other nuclear weapons state” (Daily Times, December 3). Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the threat to the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is linked to the trajectory of the Islamist militants. This was recognized by former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who stated on December 3 that al-Qaeda affiliates could hijack Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if the country fails to neutralize the Taliban. She warned that a security failure affecting Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile could provoke other countries to intervene. The international community “will not look on as spectators if Kahuta falls into [insurgents’] hands,” she said, referring to the Pakistani nuclear facility site founded by the now disgraced former top nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan (PakTribune, December 3).
The United States has stated that Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is safe. Islamabad has received immense financial and technical assistance from Washington for developing nuclear safety measures. According to Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, Pakistan’s case for aid has been that “if it does not receive the extraordinary dispensations that it seeks, it will in effect ‘implode,’ and in the process cause extraordinary harm to others. Part of the threat of this implosion is the spectre of a transfer of its nuclear arsenal and capabilities to more intransigent and irrational elements of the Islamist far right, who would not be amenable to the logic that the country’s present rulers are willing to heed” (JINSA, Fall 2005).
A secret war game conducted in 2006 by U.S. intelligence officials and military analysts found no acceptable options for the United States to forcibly intervene to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile in the event of political and military turmoil (Dawn, December 3). The game considered questions like the number of troops that might be necessary to secure the nuclear facilities and whether the sites would be effectively isolated or further endangered if U.S. bombers dropped high-powered mines loaded with anti-tank and anti-personnel munitions on their surroundings. A former Pentagon official who participated in the exercise stated that existing contingency plans for such a scenario are in “very close hold” at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida, but they do not address how to secure nuclear weapons stored in Pakistan’s mountainous areas or major cities.
There are many in Pakistan who consider the possibility of U.S. intervention on the nuclear issue to be very real. Brigadier Feroz Khan has indicated that Pakistan’s military has most likely created false nuclear bunkers and mock nuclear warheads to discourage such intervention. Intervention from the United States might actually worsen the situation, as—among other perilous ramifications—it would augment the existing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. Meanwhile, an attempt to move the weapons to more secure sites could make them vulnerable to seizure by militant forces.
The Pakistan army establishment has long been radicalized. It is believed to maintain close links with not only the Taliban and al-Qaeda combination, but also with other Islamist militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). Despite U.S. and international pressure, Islamabad has taken no more than token action against these groups, most of which continue to function with complete impunity. And all armed jihadi groups in Pakistan have stated their willingness to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. The United States has not focused its counter-terrorism efforts on groups like the LeT, JeM, HuM and HuJI since it is pre-occupied with neutralizing the Taliban and al-Qaeda. As Pakistan’s increasing internal contradictions are creating more anxiety, elements within a number of hitherto “captive” militant groups have begun to chart an independent course of action.
Since the nuclear arsenals are under its control, the Pakistani Army was always aware of the clandestine nuclear trafficking network that rogue nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan presided over. Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, former director general of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), formed the Ummah Tamir-e-Nau (UTN, or Reconstruction of the Muslim Ummah) in March 2000 after his resignation from PAEC in 1999. The UTN is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the UN. In October 2001 both Mahmood and his associate Abdul Majeed were arrested in Pakistan for their links to al-Qaeda. The UTN was floated at the behest of bin Laden for “development projects” in Afghanistan and U.S. and British intelligence agencies have confirmed that it was directly linked to al-Qaeda. Mahmood's team was trying to develop nuclear technology for bin Laden by smuggling nuclear materials from Russia and Central Asia. Mahmood and Majeed met al-Qaeda leaders twice in 2000 and in 2001 in connection with a nuclear program (Newsline, January 2002).
With anti-Americanism already running high due to the U.S.-led war on terror, Islamist militant groups are trying to harness the radical potential within the armed forces in order to undermine support for President Musharraf, who is widely viewed as a U.S. lackey. With uncertain loyalties in sections of the army and continuing socio-political turmoil across Pakistan, a radicalized leadership within the army may jeopardize the security of nuclear weapons. Thus Musharraf’s assurances to the international community about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons represent something considerably less than a guarantee.