TIMESOFINDIA.COM | Updated: Oct 10, 2021, 21:48 ISTOPEN APP
NEW DELHI: Many well kept and not-so-well-kept secrets of the Pakistani state and its nuclear programme have been muted forever with the death of AQ Khan. The scientist, hailed as “Father of the Pakistani N-bomb,” died in Islamabad on Sunday.
Khan successfully manoeuvered and hoodwinked international glare, liaised with “rogue” states and ran a profileration racket to give shape to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, that now faces a threat, not from an adversary nation, but from forces within.
Nuclear weapons falling in possession of terrorist groups is possibly the worst nightmare for the world at large. And the only place where many believe that might be possible is Pakistan.
Security of the country’s nukes has been a concern for the international community ever since Pakistan emerged as a nuclear power in 1998.
In fact, since long before that, Islamabad was never really trusted or taken at face value, even by its erstwhile close ally, the US – borne out by the Pressler Amendment of 1990.
It banned most economic and military assistance to Pakistan unless the US president certified on an annual basis that “Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device and that the proposed United States assistance program will reduce significantly the risk that Pakistan will possess a nuclear explosive device.”
The reasons for concern regarding Pakistan’s nukes are many. It is the only nation that has both nuclear weapons and a mix of terrorist groups, many of which are allowed to operate with impunity. A recent US Congressional report on terrorism says it is home to at least 12 groups designated as ‘foreign terrorist organisations’ (including five India-centric ones).
The groups are believed to have sympaythisers within, and might have even infiltrated Pakistan’s security and military establishments.
At stake is Pakistan’s 165 (approx) nuclear warheads.
The ‘Pak nukes falling in jehadi hands’ concern has reared its head again after the Taliban toppled the Afghan government with relative ease and established control over a vast array of arms and ammunition.
A recent article by the American think-tank Brookings Institution delves into the details of the problem.
It describes Pakistan as a state “…governed by a shaky coalition of ineffective politicians and trained military leaders trying desperately to contain the challenge of domestic terrorism.”
American Presidents have never really bought into assurances by Pakistani leaders that they have the terror groups under check, it says. The Brookings article even suggests that the US already has a plan in place in the event of nukes falling into jehadi hands or matters coming close thereof.
To quote the author directly: “…the US has reportedly developed a secret plan to arbitrarily seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if a terrorist group in Pakistan seemed on the edge of capturing some or all of its nuclear warheads. When repeatedly questioned about the plan, US officials have strung together an artful, if unpersuasive, collection of “no comments.”
There have been several audacious attacks on Pakistan’s military installations in the past. Did terrorists ever come close to laying hands on Pakistan’s nukes? There’s nothing to suggest so. However, probes have revealed al-Qaida infiltration into the ranks of Pakistan military. That itself is a huge concern.
In a succour to the fearful possibility of “nukes in jihadi hands,” the author of the Brookings article also says “If history is a reliable guide, Pakistan’s professional military would almost certainly respond, and in time probably succeed,” vis-à-vis thwarting efforts of jihadi groups aspiring to own a nuclear weapon.
Pakistan’s Nuclear Command and Control is composed of two civic-military committees and advises both, the Prime Minister and the President, on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons.
Despite the lingering concerns, many in the US security establishment believe that Pakistan stores its nuclear stockpile in a way that makes it difficult to put the pieces together; that is, components are located in different places.
A 2020 Congressional study, while acknowledging Pakistan’s steps to enhance nuclear security, observes that ‘Instability in Pakistan has called the extent and durability of these reforms into question