Keeping the bad guys from getting the nukes

Tariq Abid (Pakistan, UWC AC 2011-2013)

Over the recent years, a lot of hype has been built up about the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and the likelihood of their fall into evil hands.  In this debate, the most important stakeholders are the common Pakistani people, therefore it is important to understand a perspective from that dimension.

It is a widely held belief among the Pakistani public that in establishing the abovementioned fears about our nuclear security, critical facts on the ground have been overlooked and realities exaggerated.

To understand this, let’s look at common scenarios drawn up when expressing fears about nuclear security. The narrative says that a group of terrorists might launch a large scale offensive capturing enough territory to take control of critical nuclear weapon sites, gain control of the weapons and use them. Another suggests a small scale surprise attack with similar outcomes. A different narrative suggests a coup by ‘Islamist’ officers in the army, who gain control of nuclear weapons. Yet another suggests that certain forces in the government might sell off nuclear materials on the black market.

It is important to analyse the assumptions made in these scenarios and claims in contrast with certain realities.

The first narrative assumes that somehow terrorist outfits could on a large scale defeat the Pakistan armed forces, extinguish the army’s ability to counter attack, and then manage to hold significantly large amounts of territory. This would virtually mean an establishment of sovereignty of the terrorist governments, giving them access to state resources and information. This is obviously quite an absurd notion owing to the fact that this would be quite a daunting task for a conventional modern army, whereas in this case we are talking about outfits that do not possess the numbers or level of organization to even fight a large scale drawn out battle.

The second narrative ignores the fact that the locations of these weapons are highly concealed and their components highly segmented. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that terrorist organizations could seek out a site and then further unlikely that they’d have the opportunity to actually assemble and operate those weapons. Furthermore, this once again exaggerates the capability that terrorist organizations actually possess, it is highly unlikely that these organizations (in order to capture a site) would be able to covertly assemble in large enough numbers and then outlast military defence for long enough to acquire or use nuclear weapons.

Before moving on to the third, it is important to realize something. It is often said there is a great tendency within the Pakistani population and in the Army high command to sympathize with extremist agendas due to ‘Talibanization’ or ‘Islamization’ of large swathes of Pakistani population. This is then used to justify the possibility of occurrence of narrative three. It is important to clarify something. It is true that a large majority of Pakistanis, and even those in in positions of power, would disagree with US policies and especially resent the US presence in Afghanistan. They might also resent the US drone strikes that frequently take place in the tribal areas leaving scores of civilians dead. All of these are genuine political sentiments. This does not however mean that these people are crazy psychopaths who would want to push the region into nuclear apocalypse. However unfortunately, aforementioned prevalent political sentiments are sometimes labelled to be synonymous with advocating terrorism and global mayhem. This is most unfortunate and potentially dangerous since it confuses realities to base views and actions on.

Now coming to the third narrative, first of all it is highly unlikely that an individual or group wanting to use nuclear weapons for large scale destruction would successfully grab power, especially under the tight check that the army keeps on its staff. It is also implausible since such an agenda is unlikely to gain support from either the officer or soldier cadre because of the ludicrousness that it retains. In any case, there is a complex command and control structure overseeing nuclear assets, which would be hard to bypass by an individual or any isolated group.

The last narrative refers to the proliferation of nuclear weapons through the black market. Any individual or group of rogues can’t gain to access to nuclear material as easily as it is presumed to be so. Not only due to the extremely tight intelligence cover that is kept on such individuals and such activities but also due to the fact that information about these materials and access to them is highly difficult. For such an endeavour to succeed and stay concealed all or most of the instruments of command and control would have to be in cohort, which as aforementioned is highly unlikely.  Former nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan is often cited as a case study for such a narrative. Notwithstanding, the dubiousness of the much mentioned confession he made some 10 years ago (which was probably forced under coercion), Khan was only one individual in the nuclear program. It is hard to believe that he would have had completely free access to nuclear material and would have been able to get away with selling it off at any point. The amount of security and covertness that surrounds the nuclear material makes it improbable that the allegations of proliferation are completely true.

These four narratives aren’t supposed to be a comprehensive list of possibilities, yet they are meant to show the implausibility of commonly suggested eventualities. The point being that the vulnerability is overstated and the danger is exaggerated. Not to say, that things couldn’t be better, of course they can be. Yet this is far from proclaiming ‘a calamity waiting to happen’. Establishing this is quite important.

To the Pakistani nation, the nuclear assets are a matter of extreme emotion. The creation of nuclear weapon capability was in the first place meant to prevent conventional war with India through deterrence, an issue that was a major foreign policy dilemma. When there is exaggerated alarm raised about the security of such a national asset, and the subsequent pleas for international intervention (which has so much political and historical baggage associated with it), it arouses great amounts of sentiment. Needless to say, that any such endeavour would cause immeasurable drawbacks.

To conclude, the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is often exaggerated, giving rise to the establishment of false perceptions. This can prove to be quite dangerous, not only by stimulating mistrust of foreign intentions within the Pakistani people but also leading to ill assumed, regrettable policy choices on the part of the international community.

-United Words-


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