[Overseasview]Secure Pakistan’s nuclear weaponsEver since Pakistan demonstrated its nuclear ability by exploding nuclear warheads in 1998, the West has questioned the security of its arsenal. For America, the perennial question has been whether the government in Islamabad is fully in charge of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
The Sept. 11 attacks in the United States exacerbated this concern. Washington has been very concerned about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and fearful that lax control could allow unauthorized personnel, including people in their military, to get access.
For a while after Sept. 11, the U.S. government discussed nuclear security with Pakistan. The United States wanted to know how Pakistan maintains its system, including guaranteeing reliable personnel as well as mechanical and electronic protection against unauthorized access to the weapons.
Washington has also been concerned about Pakistan’s deployment, storage and transportation of the weapons. American nuclear weapons laboratories also wanted assurances that Pakistan had installed what in the United States are called PALs, or permissive action links.
The Pakistani military would be justified in feeling resentful about these American concerns. Some might perceive American nuclear chauvinism; that it’s an issue only because non-Caucasians are involved.
India had a similar experience. When it claimed to have successfully tested nuclear weapons in May 1998, the United States gave it little credibility. That was only because the last test in a series of what India called a low-yield thermonuclear explosion actually showed an unusually low nuclear yield.
Nuclear weapons designers at Los Alamos and Livermore thought the low number might have indicated a partial failure. Nuclear weapons experts in New Delhi resented what they perceived to be Americans’ feeling of “white superiority.”
But the current concern over Pakistan is not completely without justification. Recent leaks about illegal access to Pakistan’s uranium enrichment technology by Libya and Iran, as well as the nuclear weapons designed by A.Q. Khan, known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, provided the foundation for such concerns. It is hard to understand how Khan could operate an international nuclear bazaar for years without any intervention, or even awareness, by his government.
The Pentagon recently stated the United States is not concerned about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s death. But this is the time the Pentagon should be the most concerned.
The U.S. Department of Defense is not in any position to openly express any worries, which would discredit America’s allies in Islamabad, for the sake of anti-terrorism. The U.S. also does not want to encourage the terrorists by acknowledging the chaos they have wrought. When A.Q. Khan’s underground nuclear market was revealed in 2004, the U.S. government did not openly go after him because it did not want to derail the support it was getting from the Pakistani government.
At one point, the Pentagon was believed to have made plans to physically take control of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. It would be no surprise if American special operations forces now are ready to execute such a mission. However, it would be prudent for the United States to act calmly.
The true worry is that Islamic fundamentalists will penetrate government and military or intelligence institutions. To be honest, anti-American, religious-based extremism has received plenty of sympathy in that country. Even at the high levels of Pakistan’s state hierarchy, for instance within the military intelligence, many officers disagree with President Musharraf for switching support from the Taliban to America.
To be sure, Pakistan is the most unstable of all of the nations in the expanded nuclear club. One can truly respect the Pakistani government and its armed forces for their ability to control internal turmoil and restore order quickly, but international concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are legitimate.
The turmoil in Pakistan requires the world to be more assertive in curtailing the spread of these weapons. Since the demise of the Cold War, in less than 20 years the world has witnessed nuclear proliferation in South Asia, Northeast Asia and the Middle East.
India and Pakistan have moved their nuclear weapons from the closet. Iraq and Libya have, at some points, demonstrated non-compliance with the international treaties. Iran may possibly fall into this category, too, for its covert nuclear program prior to 2003. North Korea quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop nuclear weapons “legally.” It might have done so even as a member of the treaty.
Given Pakistan’s current and foreseeable instability, the international community needs to help restore the social order and national reconciliation, even though it seems like an insurmountable task. Safeguarding the nuclear weapons in Pakistan is not simply an issue of the sovereignty of that country, but the responsibility of humankind.
*The writer is a professor of international relations and deputy director, Center for American Studies, Fudan University in Shanghai.
by Shen Dingli