Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pakistan's nuclear program or: how I learned to start worrying and hate the bomb

This is an issue that is phenomenally important, but not much information is available. Pakistan's nuclear program has always been shrouded in secrecy, so it is hard to verify any reports. Here is Pervez Hoodbhoy's take on this: A State of Denial. I have known him for years and I always take his views seriously. So here is a somber analysis:

A cacophony of protests in Pakistan greeted a recent statement by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad ElBaradei. "I fear that chaos, or an extremist regime, could take root in that country, which has 30 to 40 warheads," he said. He also expressed fear that "nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of extremist groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan."

But in Pakistan, few worry. The Strategic Plans Division, which is the Pakistani agency responsible for handling nuclear weapons, exudes confidence that it can safely protect the country's "crown jewels." The SPD is a key beneficiary of the recently disclosed secret $100 million grant by the Bush administration, the purpose of which is to make Pakistan's nuclear weapons safer.

This money has been put to use. Indeed, ever since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a regular traffic of Pakistani military officers to and from the United States for coaching in nuclear safety techniques. While multiple layers of secrecy make it hard to judge success, the improvement in the SPD's public relations is palpable. PowerPoint presentations, guided tours of military headquarters and calculated expressions of openness have impressed foreign visitors.

And of course, every military happening in Pakistan needs an American approval (yes, even if its by Joe Lieberman):
Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of a Homeland Security and governmental affairs committee, left reassured. After a briefing by the SPD's chief, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, Lieberman declared in a press conference, "Yes, he did allay my fears," and promised to carry that message back to Congress.
But Pervez (Hoodbhoy, not Musharraf) thinks that El Baradei and Lieberman are looking at two different issues:

The two men are looking at different things. Lieberman was impressed by how well Pakistani nuclear handlers have been tutored in the United States. ElBaradei, on the other hand, expressed a broader concern. He presumably reasoned that safety procedures and their associated technologies are only as safe as the men who use them.

This is the crux of the problem. Pakistan has become steadily more radicalized as the influence of Islamists increases in its culture and society. The deliberate nurturing of jihadism by the state has, over 30 years, produced extremism inside parts of the military and intelligence. Today, some parts are at war with other parts.

And the suicide bombings, which were unheard of in Pakistan couple of years back, are now increasingly targeting intelligence agencies and elite military units:
A score of suicide attacks in the last few weeks, some bearing a clear insider signature, have rocked an increasingly demoralized military and intelligence establishment. For example, an unmarked bus of the Inter Services Intelligence agency was collecting employees for work early in the morning in Rawalpindi when it was boarded by a suicide bomber who killed 25 when he blew himself up. The ISI had not recovered from this shock when, just weeks later, another bus was blown up as it entered the service's closely guarded secret headquarters.

Elite commandos of the Special Services Group have fared no better. Here, the suicide bomber was an army man. Still more recently, a group of six Pakistani militants, reportedly brainwashed by clerics linked to Al Qaeda, was arrested in December for plotting suicide attacks against military targets. Their leader was revealed to be a former army major, Ahsan-ul-Haq, who had masterminded the Nov. 1 suicide attack on a Pakistan Air Force bus that killed 9 people and wounded 40 others in the city of Sargodha, where nuclear weapons are said to be stored.

This also underscores the general stability of Pakistan. If these bombers can hit some of the highest security targets, what hope do cities have from preventing such attacks. In fact, it almost seems that the organizations behind these attacks are, at present, simply showing-off their strength. They certainly seem capable of creating mass chaos in Iraq-style bombing campaign in cities, where the population is far greater than in Iraqi cities (by way of comparison, Iraq's population is ~25 millions, and Pakistan's is 165 million). But back to the nuclear issue:

As the rift within widens, many questions pose themselves. Can collusion between different field-level nuclear commanders - each responsible for different parts of the weapon - result in the hijacking of one complete weapon? Could jihadist outsiders develop links with sympathetic custodial insiders?

Many vexing questions concern the weapons laboratories and production units. Given the sloppy work culture, it is hard to imagine that accurate records have been maintained over a quarter century of fissile-material production. So, can one be certain that small, but significant, quantities of highly enriched uranium have not made their way out? More ominously, religious fervor in these places has grown enormously over the last 30 years.

I'm not yet convinced about the dangers of the collusion theory (of course things may change). However, it is far more plausible that enriched uranium can get smuggled out. But again, we don't have much information about Pakistan's nuclear program and its safeguards, so I cannot say when should we really start loosing sleep over it. However, early last year, Pakistan's nuclear authority did release an ad in Urdu seeking information about any lost or stolen radioactive material. Now that can never be good. So if you have seen any suspiciously glowing objects, please call the number in the ad to the right. Wait a minute...whats in those glow sticks??

Read the full Hoodbhoy article here.


Matthew said...

I've been losing sleep over nuclear weapons since I was twelve years old.

One of the disturbing things about that article is that as Hoodbhoy says, the most vocal concern seems to be voiced by people outside the country like ElBaradei. But Pakistan isn't unique in having blinders on about it's own nuclear program -- how many people in the US know anything at all about our nuclear program?

You're no less dead being killed by a car bomb than a nuke, but the nature and efficiency of devastation these things can cause in the blink of an eye is appalling. Do people get that? Do people understand the scale of these things? Is there any sense in Pakistan that people generally understand how awful and dehumanizing these things are? Or are people just happy that "hey, we've got this great, powerful, technologically superior, um, thingy, which can, uh, hurt bad guys real bad!"?

Is life that cheap?

Salman Hameed said...

Yes, you are right. There is no sense of the scale of devastation from this. I am not aware of much public discussion or even fictionalized accounts of what nuclear weapons can do. Pervez Hoodbhoy made a documentary about it, but I doubt it was ever aired on television.

On the point about spreading insurgency and the rise of suicide bombings in Pakistan, check out todays' NYT story about Peshawar:

This is a pretty good article and paints a complex (but depressing) picture of the area and whats going on there. One thing that stands out: you cannot win this battle without the full support of the public behind the government - and thats where Musharraf's lack of popularity becomes significant on a larger scale. By the way, Peshawar is less than hour drive from Islamabad.

Salman Hameed said...

Typo in the previous message. Peshawar is less than two hour drive from Islamabad (~100 miles)

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