Pakistan’s Nuclear Nightmare

Can terrorists get their hands on an N-bomb in Pakistan? The Bhatkal scenario sounds fanciful but there is no denying that South Asia is a risky flashpoint.
Last week, the captured Indian Mujahideen leader Yasin Bhatkal revealed he had asked his Pakistani boss for a “small nuclear bomb” to detonate in Surat.
“Anything can be arranged in Pakistan ,” his boss is reputed to have replied. What if such a terrorist nuclear device were, indeed, to go off in Surat? Anything acquired from the Pakistani arsenal would not be “small” but rather, comparable to the 15 kiloton Hiroshima bomb.
The death toll would be significantly higher due to Surat’s greater population density, and because a ground detonation can lead to radioactive fallout. A less catastrophic scenario might involve a homemade “dirty” bomb, using radioactive material appropriated from medical equipment.
Although the physical damage would now be quite localized , the resulting panic and outrage might again outstrip anything seen in previous terrorist attacks. In either case, India would be faced with the same difficult question: how to react? So far, India’s policy on terrorism has been one of restraint: the response has never been a full-scale military attack, aimed at inflicting sufficiently costly losses to make Pakistan abandon its policy of tolerating terrorist groups. The reason is pragmatism: Pakistan, which has significantly weaker conventional military power, has set a low threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in case it is overwhelmed by India in a conventional war. With enough nuclear warheads to wipe each other out, India and Pakistan are in a classic configuration of mutually assured destruction.
The danger of nuclear escalation has made the cost of starting even a conventional war too high, no matter what the provocation. But what if the provocation itself was nuclear, like an atomic device exploding in Surat, or even a dirty bomb? What government would be able to adhere to a policy of restraint in the face of the frenzied calls for revenge sure to follow? If India retaliated in kind, with even the most limited nuclear action, the experience with NATO war games shows that the end result would probably be a full scale nuclear exchange. With 100 detonations (about half the current combined arsenal), not only would several million Indians and Pakistanis be instantly killed, but atmospheric soot would precipitate a worldwide nuclear famine, causing up to two billion additional starvation deaths.
Clearly, the only viable option is to never have to find out the Indian response. Could the terrorist acquisition of a nuclear bomb indeed be “arranged” in Pakistan ? Over the years, the international community has repeatedly focused on the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, with the US providing substantial aid to enhance protection. Pakistan insists its weapons are safe, a position the US State Department has endorsed. Even if terrorists were able to lay their hands on one, detonating a nuclear device is a highly complex procedure, with several safety mechanisms in place to prevent unauthorized activation. The only plausible situation where all security measures might be overcome would be if Pakistan were to degenerate into a completely failed state. Dirty bombs present their own difficulties . Radioactive materials cannot be easily handled without specialized equipment, and there are issues with transportability as well as dispersion mechanisms to cause sufficient contamination.
Certainly, no dirty bomb has ever been successfully deployed. Under current conditions, therefore, the Bhatkal scenario appears quite fanciful. And yet, it is a reminder of the issues at stake. South Asia is perhaps the riskiest nuclear flashpoint in the world, an image that the region’s population has not sufficiently assimilated. Given Pakistan’s strategic needs, it is unlikely to ever relinquish its nuclear arsenal. A more attainable goal would be to convince both sides to take weapons off high alert status, so that cooler heads can prevail in terms of crisis. Restraint, rather than emotion, is needed to ensure the nuclear red line is never crossed.
Suri’s novel ‘The City of Devi’ revolves around the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan