Pakistan is entering yet another period of political unrest. But should we worry about Pakistani loose nukes? The answer to that question rests on two critical outcomes: Is Pakistan’s security system durable enough to withstand political chaos? And how entrenched are Islamic radicals in Pakistan command-and-control apparatus?
IAEA Chief El Baradei worries over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as he talks to Al Hayat:
I felt a great deal of anxiety over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Similarly, when for over a year I dealt with the Iranian nuclear case, I repeatedly warned against the use of force and reminded that we still had a lot of time for diplomatic solutions. We should not think of military solutions in the Iranian crisis or in any other crisis until we have exhausted all diplomatic solutions and are left with nothing but the military solution as a last resort. For now, we are still far from this.
When it comes to the Iranian issue, I continuously fear that the aftermath of any new war in the Middle East and the Islamic world, will not be in Iran which the world fears will have a nuclear bomb ten years from now. What I really fear is the aftermath in Pakistan, a troubled country with too many problems, an Islamic state that interacts with the Islamic world. I fear that an anarchic or radical regime will take over this nation which has up to 30 or 40 nuclear weapons. I fear more that a radical group in Pakistan or Afghanistan will acquire a nuclear weapon.
Pakistan’s foreign office was quick to respond to his concerns. From The Dawn:
“His remarks ignore the fact that the strategic assets of Pakistan are fully secure and under multi-layered safeguards and controls exercised by the National Command Authority,” Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said at his weekly press briefing. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei was quoted by pan-Arab Daily Al Hayat as saying in an interview: “I fear that chaos… or an extremist regime could take root in that country which has 30 to 40 warheads.”
The spokesman said Pakistan was a responsible nuclear weapon state. “Our nuclear weapons are as secure as that of any other nuclear weapon state. We, therefore, believe that statements expressing concerns about their safety and security are unwarranted and irresponsible.”
George Perkovick, a Senior Associate at Carnegie Institute, seems to agree. From his NPR radio interview:
“The military controls Pakistan. The thing the military cares most about is nuclear weapons so nuclear weapons are the most secure entity in Pakistan,” Perkovich said.
“What I’ve been worried about for years is not the nuclear weapons, it’s the domestic situation … the real worry, it’s the future of politics,” he said.
But Trudy Rubin espouses an opposing viewpoint:
The professional qualifications of the top security official were impressive. The system he described was complex and substantial. Counterintelligence on weapons security now comes directly to the top security official, not routed via other intelligence agencies, some of which have had past connections with jihadis.
OK, I said, let’s suppose the Pakistani security system works. But in a time of political uncertainty, could someone with Islamist sympathies take over the entire system? “The Taliban or al-Qaida are in no position to take over the central government and thereby the National Command Authority,” came back the swift answer. This is probably true.
The problem is that Pakistan is entering uncharted political waters. Under President Pervez Musharraf, the military has been ambivalent about taking on Pakistani militants and has become demoralized by losses sustained in jihadi attacks. No political leader except Ms. Bhutto has spelled out clearly that this is now Pakistan‘s war, not a proxy war for American interests.
The greatest fear of U.S. experts on Pakistan‘s nuclear security is that disgruntled insiders could penetrate the security system. I want to believe that the Pakistani security system can weed out bad actors before they get their hands on fissile material. But can we be sure?