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Unsafe Pakistani Nuclear Arsenal : India needs a well calculated and publicised strategy

Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for the powerful position of Director CIA told the members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee during her confirmation on the 9th May 2018 that CIA continues to be concerned about the safely of Pak nuclear arsenal and is closely monitoring the nexus between the Pak based terrorists and the Pak nuclear scentists. This confirms the assessment of several countries including India.

She was responding to a pointed question about the US concerns on the follow on attacks after 9/11 by terrorists using nuclear devices, biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction raised by John Cornyn. She replied, “There was very deep concern about potential contacts, and we continue to monitor this very closely, between extremists and Pakistani nuclear scientists.”

The statement of Gina Haspel reflects the continuing US worry over the possibilities of Pak based terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons with the support of some elements in the Pak armed forces and using them against the US assets or interests. Stephen Tankel an American security expert had earlier stated that the ‘US has two vital security interests in Pakistan – ensuring that the militants in the region do not attack the US homeland and keeping militants from getting their hands on nuclear material. This has a serious implication for India as well. A look at the indicators in this direction is necessary.

There are several reasons for CIA’s assessment. First, the worrisome dimension is the continuing links between the Pak nuclear scientists and terrorists. Several Pak nuclear scientists were reported to have close links with Al Qaeda and LeT. The groups like Al Qaeda and LeT have shown interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda had links with well-known Pak Nuclear scientists like Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmoud and Abdul Majid. Gina Haspel has highlighted this report. George Tenet, a former CIA Director, in his book has mentioned that Sultan Mahmoud had met Osama bin Laden in August, 2001 and had provided the rough design of a bomb to the Al Qaeda in August 2001. David Albright a former UN inspector and a well-known expert had also concluded that Abdul Majid and Sultan Mahmoud had provided significant assistance to Al Qaeda. Reports also reveal that the Pak based terrorists including Al Qaeda and LeT have employed specialists for developing “dirty bombs”. A notorious organisation called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (UTN), which was reported to have interest in Pak nuclear assets for use by terrorist organisation, had also links with two Pak nuclear scientists- Muhammad Ali Mukhtar of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and Suleiman Assad of AQ Khan Lab. Significantly, late Hamid Gul former DG ISI was the honorary patron of this organisation revealing its nexus with ISI.

Second, the possibility of ISIS acquiring nuclear weapons from Pakistan is also worrying the US. In 2016, after the massacre in Brussels, it was learnt that the ISIS fanatics, who were behind the attack, were planning an attack on the Belgium nuclear power plants and had surveyed the areas. Afzal Ashraf, a former senior officer in the RAF and a counter-terrorism strategist for US Army in Iraq, said Pakistan was “the most likely place” for ISIS to obtain a nuclear explosive.

The third reason is that several attacks on the sensitive armed forces installation reflect the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the Pak Army to protect its vital installations. At least six facilities widely believed to be associated with Pakistan’ nuclear programme have been successfully targeted by the terrorist groups. These include a suicide bomber attack on a bus carrying workers to Sargodha air base in Nov.2007, attack on a bus outside Kamara air base in Dec.2007, attack by Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers in Wah cantonment what experts believe to be Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly depot in Aug, 2008, attack on Karachi Army Headquarters in 2009, assault on the naval base in Karachi in 2011, and the attack on Minhas air force base in Kamara in August 2012. Such bold attacks in the well protected areas raise serious doubts about capabilities of the Pak Army to guard nuclear installations from the terrorists.

Fourth and the most worrisome dimension is the growing radicalisation of the Pak Army that suggests that the codes may not be safe even if there are a number of persons involved in the operation. This suspicion gets further strengthened by the close relationship between ISI/Pak Army and the terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e- Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammad etc. Musharraf himself had admitted that at least in two attacks on his life “junior” Pak Army officials having links with Al Qaeda were involved. The links between Hafiz Md. Sayeed and Pak Army are well documented. Osama bin Laden’s stay for several years in the Pak Army area itself is a testimony of the nexus between the Pak Army and Al Qaeda linked terrorist outfits. A Pak journalist Farooq Suldheria has summed up the fears in the following words, “The Talibanisation of the Pak military is something we can’t overlook. What if internal Taliban take over nuclear assets?”

This fear was strengthened by the event of May 6, 2014, when four ‘rogue’ naval officers walked up the gangway of the PNS Zulfiqar, a 4,000-ton frigate and took over the control of the ship. Their plan was to join up with another group of six militants disguised in marine uniforms who were approaching the Zulfiqar in an inflatable dinghy. Together they hoped to hijack the ship and use it to attack a US Navy patrol in the Indian Ocean. However, the alert sailors when attacked by militants, killed all the militants and the ‘rogue’ naval officers. The audacity of the rogue naval officers to take control of a ship in one of the most secured naval facilities in Pakistan was shocking. Even more shocking was the source of the attack: Al-Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the strike and praised the dead men as “martyrs.” Five more naval officers implicated in the plot were later arrested, charged with mutiny, and sentenced to death. This event clearly established that rogue elements in the Pak Armed forces with the support of terrorists could plan to attack US interests and assets. The Zulfiqar incident assumes a great significance in view of Pakistan’s plan to arm its submarines and perhaps the surface ships with nuclear weapons.

The above certainly underline the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of rogue elements of the armed forces and terrorists in Pakistan. There is a real danger from the jihadi officers in the Pak Army, who have a jihadist mindset. In addition, the possibility of dirty bomb being manufactured by jehadis is reported from time to time. While US is focusing on this aspect as anti-US feelings in a section of armed forces who are close to jehadis is on the increase, India too should keep this factor in its calculus. This aspect becomes scarier when we take into account the fact that Pakistan has developed tactical nuclear weapons and intends to deploy them along the Indo-Pak border. It would be easy to take over the control of such weapons by rogue officers during their deployment in forward areas. Gina Haspel’s testimony should be taken as yet another warning to take necessary precautionary measures. This indeed demands a well calculated responsive strategy in view of the new developments.

It may be mentioned that India has multiple, well camouflaged and secured vectors in place which are constantly being upgraded and reviewed. However, the need for conveying periodically some aspects of our nuclear preparedness both to the domestic population as also adversaries without sharing operational details can hardly be overstated. It would reassure the domestic population and strengthen deterrence. The absence of authentic information often leads to ill-informed debates and projection of unfounded fears. One hopes that the newly formed Defence Planning Committee would take note of this aspect.

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