Frontline, November 21 - December 04, 2009

by Praful Bidwai

The task of securing Pakistan’s nuclear facilities against an extremist takeover cannot be left to the U.S. alone.

SHORTLY after India conducted a series of five nuclear explosions in May 1998, a veritable cottage industry emerged in this country purveying apologia and prejudice disguised as expert opinion on nuclear weapons policies and programmes in Asia and the world.

Entrepreneurs in this industry justified India’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons arsenal on various grounds: as a defensive shield against China’s nuclear weapons; a means of exploiting the last window of opportunity to conduct full-scale real-world nuclear blasts before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) eliminates that chance; and as a way of beating Pakistan to the nuclear goal-post. Was not Pakistan about to detonate blasts according to Indian intelligence reports? Would not India be foolish to let Pakistan claim superiority in the field by going first?

The purpose of these rationalisations was to mask or deny the discontinuity that the Pokhran-II represented in India’s nuclear programme. They failed to explain why India had lived in the shadow of China’s bomb for more than 30 years without protesting and complaining, and how poorly the need for full-fledged tests squares up with the Indian stand at the Conference on Disarmament in 1996 that the CTBT draft is flawed because it permits non-explosive hydronuclear testing.

There were other contradictions too. However, all the explanations were unanimous on one thing: Pakistan should also conduct nuclear tests. That would generate security for Pakistan and stabilise the South Asian security balance. It is almost as if the rationalisers were looking for a partner in crime, or a way of sharing the opprobrium and blame that would come India’s way because of the nuclear tests. Some of them put out elaborate arguments in favour of a nuclearised South Asia as a guarantor of peace and stability.

Some of these same worthies had acted as cheerleaders when India repeatedly shot down proposals made in the 1980s and 1990s by Pakistan for halting the race with India to acquire nuclear weapons. Pakistan made a total of seven proposals ranging from a joint declaration of nuclear weapons renunciation with third party or joint verification, to a signature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons pursuit was public knowledge and well-documented by the mid-1980s. The famous interview with Kuldip Nayar in which Abdul Qadir Khan boasted, “Tell them we have it the Bomb … ” took place in 1987.

India failed to respond to any of these proposals. Indeed, it dismissed them by calling into question Islamabad’s sincerity. The Indian government did not even try to test this sincerity or call Pakistan’s bluff by making counter-proposals of its own. Except for formulating the Rajiv Gandhi plan of 1988 for complete global nuclear weapons elimination – which it presented before the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on Disarmament III, but did not pursue – India did nothing to address the “threat” it perceived from the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme.

India essentially relied on the United States to mount pressure on Pakistan through the Pressler Amendment and similar devices, and lobbied Washington to this end, expending a huge amount of energy in the process. The pressure was directed at limiting arms transfer to Pakistan after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and to slow down Pakistan’s nuclear programme by making all aid to it conditional upon a U.S. presidential certification that the programme was not aimed at producing nuclear weapons.


The Indian government’s stand was deeply irrational. On the one hand, it emphasised the security threat from Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability. On the other, it did little to defuse the threat and refused to dismiss it bilaterally. The stand can only be explained as the result of India’s keenness to continue its own nuclear weapons pursuit, while maintaining and expanding various technological and practical options relevant to it.

In addition, a significant current of opinion in the Indian establishment had convinced itself that Pakistan, a country much less industrialised and technologically accomplished than India, could not develop a nuclear weapons capability based on borrowed or pilfered designs of uranium enrichment centrifuges and imported materials and equipment. Former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Raja Ramanna publicly stated any number of times – in December 1997, April 1998, and so on – that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapons capability. Our nuclear apologists and cheerleaders never questioned this ludicrously irresponsible assessment.

In May 1998, the Indian government chided and taunted Pakistan into conducting tit-for-tat nuclear tests and hypocritically justified India’s own tests by citing Pakistan’s nuclear blasts. It never occurred to anyone in the Indian policymaking establishment that nuclear weapons might have a deeply destabilising domestic impact in Pakistan as well as dangerously upset the security balance in South Asia.

Not even the Kargil war, the world’s first serious large-scale conventional conflict between two nuclear weapons states – beside which the 1970s’ small-scale clashes between the Soviet Union and China at the Ussuri river pale into insignificance – triggered a change in this complacent mode of thinking. In conformity with the high dogma of nuclear deterrence theory, it was blithely assumed that India and Pakistan would enter into a stable security equation, and that nuclear weapons would induce maturity and moderation among their leaders.


In reality, nuclear weapons possession bred adventurism in the Pakistani leadership. General Pervez Musharraf launched the Kargil operation with Pakistani troops disguised as a private militia – in the belief that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would provide a shield behind which to conduct a large-scale conventional operation.

Kargil precipitated a domestic crisis in Pakistan – in the form of a confrontation between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf that led to the coup of October 1999, detabilising the military-civilian balance, made worse by the rise of jehadi extremism supported by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other shadowy agencies. The December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar was the direct result of such extremist activity and showed how close to the brink Pakistan had travelled.

The cataclysmic events of September 2001 and the subsequent disclosure of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear smuggling activities suddenly highlighted the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremists or jehadis infiltrating into Pakistani nuclear facilities and building cells in them. Those dangers are not imaginary. After all, the Khan network included people like Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who helped build gas centrifuges for Pakistan and design the Khushab reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons in addition to the enriched uranium that has helped Pakistan make 80 to 100 bombs.

Mahmood is an eccentric who is obsessed by such things as the links between science and the Quran and the possible role of sunspots in setting off the French and the Russian revolutions. Mahmood regards Pakistan’s nuclear weapons as “the property of a whole Ummah”, the global Muslim community. Mahmood and one of his colleagues were reported to have met Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan in August 2001.

Pakistan’s official position is that its nuclear arsenal is totally secure and safe. As Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai told The New York Times, “Please grant to Pakistan that if we can make nuclear weapons and the delivery systems, we can also make them safe. Our security systems are foolproof.” But U.S. Intelligence reports suggest otherwise: foreign-trained Pakistani scientists, including some suspected to have sympathies for radical Islam, have been returning to Pakistan to seek jobs in the nuclear establishment, and the influence of jehadi extremists is growing in the armed forces, including in special units that may be detailed to protect its nuclear facilities.

The U.S. reportedly offered special help to Pakistan in the form of “permissive action links”, or locks that prevent the unauthorised movement, deployment and use of nuclear weapons, as well as other technological devices such as perimeter monitoring to secure its nuclear facilities. It is not certain if Pakistan accepted all the offers – although some reports suggested it did – and how closely the Americans are monitoring its nuclear activities with what has been described as a “small, covert programme”.

Now, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says (The New Yorker, November 16) that the U.S. has been negotiating highly sensitive understandings with the Pakistan military about the security of its nuclear arsenal, including stationing specially trained American units to provide added security for Pakistani nuclear facilities in situations of crisis. This assistance would be given in return for the transfer of substantial sums of money to the military to equip and train Pakistani soldiers and to improve their housing and other facilities.

Hersh reports that the principal fear in the U.S. administration is that a special nuclear danger arises in Pakistan from the need to scatter its stock of nuclear weapons (to protect them from possible attacks by India), and at the same time, the need to ensure highly centralised command and control over them. The Pakistani nuclear doctrine calls for nuclear warheads and their triggers to be stored separately from one another, and from their delivery vehicles. But this also makes the weapons vulnerable to diversion during shipment and reassembly.

The report has been stoutly denied by the Pakistani government that accuses Hersh of an anti-Pakistan sensationalist bias. But it sounds perfectly plausible. How far such efforts will succeed in securing the Pakistani arsenal is not clear. The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is deeply troubled especially after the Pakistan Army’s ground offensive in South Waziristan. It is not excluded that the Pakistani military will keep a small “reserve” of nuclear weapons outside the scope of monitoring by the U.S. Meanwhile, jehadi militants have begun to target the Army itself, as the audacious attack of October 17 on its headquarters in Rawalpindi shows.

India must be deeply concerned at these developments. India has a vital interest in securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. India can play a helpful role by offering an assurance to Pakistan that it will not target its nuclear weapons facilities. At the same time, India must indicate that it is willing to discuss nuclear risk reduction and restraint measures with Pakistan, such as stationing nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles far away from the border and maintaining strict separation between warheads and missiles. This could go a long way in generating some confidence and in facilitating a more cooperative attitude in Islamabad.