In the United States, talk of the rise of militancy in Pakistan has become synonymous with fears that the country’s nuclear arsenal will fall into the wrong hands. Recent articles and books, particularly from the NY Times, have further probed this topic, leading many to question just how much control Pakistan has over its nuclear weapons. Heather Williams, based in Washington, D.C., seeks to address these questions, and dispel many notions associated with the issue:
A May 4 New York Times article by David E. Sanger, “Strife in Pakistan Raises U.S. Doubts Over Nuclear Arms” sounded the alarm on the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal just prior to President Zardari’s visit to Washington. By contrast, U.S. officials continue to express confidence in Pakistan’s leadership, and President Zardari said in a recent interview with Wolf Blitzer that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was “definitely safe.” So where is the NY Times getting this story from? What is the status of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities? The facts about Pakistan’s security structure reveal the threat is overblown and there is no red button on Zardari’s desk waiting to be pressed by some sneaky scientist or tribal leader in the event he reaches Islamabad.
According to Sanger, the Obama administration is “increasingly concerned about new vulnerabilities to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.” Unidentified administration officials complain the U.S. wants information on three areas of concern:
- Location of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons
- Physical security of nuclear facilities
- Implementation of US assistance
It is difficult to navigate some of the assertions in the Times article, along with similar pieces from the Miami Herald and Fox News that jumped on the Pakistan bashing bandwagon. But despite complaints about a lack of transparency, the U.S. actually knows a great deal about Pakistan’s nuclear security. Pakistan has between 60 and 100 nuclear weapons. Immediately following the September 11th attacks, President Musharraf moved the nuclear weapons to six new underground locations. Most of these are south of Islamabad in Punjab province.
The assumption that the U.S. would know the exact location of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities is incongruous, since states are not compelled to share such sensitive information. In response to a question from David Gregory on Meet the Press on this topic, President Zardari retorted, “Why don’t you do the same with other countries yourself?… We have a right to our own sovereignty.”
Pakistan must play a balancing act of relying on U.S. assistance while maintaining its inherent distrust of U.S. intentions, particularly on nuclear issues. For example, the U.S. offered to help Pakistan develop a unique dual-key system for its launch codes, however Pakistan rebuffed the offer out of the fear the U.S. would sabotage its weapons in the process. Current fears run in a similar vein. Islamabad is reluctant to tell the U.S. the location of its nuclear weapons for fear the U.S. or India will strike those locations to eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent capabilities. The U.S. does know the nuclear weapons are in secure facilities nowhere near the areas of fighting in FATA and NWFP.
Concerns about physical and personnel security are also exaggerated. In a 2008 BBC interview, Brigadier Shaukat Qadir, a Pakistani nuclear expert, said “Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are only as much at risk as those of the U.S. or India.” Pakistan’s weapons are disassembled (the weapon itself is separate from the detonators which are all separate from delivery systems such as missiles) and cannot be used by anyone other than the Pakistani government because of command and control security measures.
Sanger suggests that rogue scientists will supply militants with nuclear materials. This is highly unlikely. Also, the militants have different objectives than terrorist groups and are not as interested in acquiring a nuclear weapon. In breaking up the A.Q. Khan network, the U.S. and Pakistan jointly identified and removed questionable scientists and implemented a strict screening process. Security personnel are trained in the U.S. Also, the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] Illicit Trafficking Database has never reported a security incident in Pakistan.
Through various forms of assistance, the U.S. has helped Pakistan secure its nuclear facilities, including a $100 million program launched under President Bush. In 2000, President Clinton created a joint U.S.-Pakistan commission to develop Pakistan’s command and control system. In the process, the U.S. had insights into Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure. Along with financial assistance, the U.S. also made secret agreements to station U.S. personnel in Pakistan solely to guarantee the safety of the nuclear weapons.
Yet Pakistan’s security and future remain questionable to many Americans. The Obama administration must play a delicate balance in expressing concern for the security situation while not subsequently questioning the Zardari government’s sovereignty or ability to lead. The administration has been consistent in its message: general concern about Pakistan, but confidence in the security of its nuclear arsenal. According to National Security Advisor James Jones, Pakistan’s efforts to secure its nuclear weapons “are moving in a more positive direction,” but if the situation quickly disintegrates “obviously the nuclear question comes into view.”