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Nuclear Pakistan : Implications for National and International Security

Paper no.429    20. 03. 2002


 by Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra

Nuclear threats in the post cold war world can be discussed in a wide spectrum of vulnerable security scenarios ranging from the possible involvement of either the state or non-state actors to the motivated opportunistic collaboration of the two.

 Potential threats of nuclear terrorism will continue to remain unpredictable of incidence, asymmetric in nature and multidimensional in scope. (

 In the case of Pakistan, examinable risks remain of possible use, misuse, pilferage or accident of nuclear equipments and materials. 

The political brinkmanship, conflicting civil-military relationships, weak economy, fragile social cohesion ridden with fundamentalist ideologies, not so credible sustenance of nuclear command and control mechanisms – together they all raise vulnerability to the risks related with nuclear and strategic assets of Pakistan. 

Also, the deceptions and ambiguities of Pakistan as a nuclear weapon state actor imply various unpredictable threats, though not unperceivable.  The existing realities of nuclear Pakistan requires attention of the international community for the long term regional and international peace and stability. 

Potential pilferage of sensitive nuclear technology, design, equipment, materials and vital information may only strengthen the imagination and planning of unscrupulous non-state actors or terrorist groups both inside Pakistan and their outside networks.  The probable “leaks” could be both intentional or inadvertent.  The incidence of worst scenario draws upon the willingness of the state itself to indulge in proliferating nuclear terror. 

Inside Pakistan, more real threats are from the disaffected lots of American crackdown in Afghanistan.  One can not rule out the potential threat that may arise from, reportedly, thousands of kith and kin of Pakistanis killed alongside the fighting Taleban forces against US led coalition in Afghanistan and sizeable number of Pakistanis taken to prison in the war in Afghanistan.

The increasing trends of trans-border Islamic affiliations and solidarities in the international security and economic systems raise numerous speculations concerning possible use of Islamic card for terrorist activities.  The potent Islamic card that Pakistan can play in the Muslim world remains significant for the policy makers and analysts who have been facing the challenge to devise mechanisms to prevent nuclear terrorism throughout the world.

The cause of concern, today, is to tackle the threatening claims worldwide from terrorist outfits of using nuclear explosive devices or to blow nuclear facilities and power plants at regular intervals. 

In one of the interviews with to Al-Jazeera television channel last year, while supporting Pakistan’s nuclear capability, Osama bin-Laden was quoted endorsing that he was actively looking to collect more nuclear weapons, besides chemical and biological arms. 

Quoting sources, who stressed many of covert shipments that might have gone through in the past, India Abroad reported that “quantities of enriched uranium required for making nuclear bombs were intercepted earlier this year by Uzbek border guards and handed over to the authorities in Tashkent”.  This shipment was intended for “the leader of a former mujahideen, pro Pakistani group who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan”.  (India Abroad, “Seizure of enriched uranium points to Taleban’s nuclear plans”, November 9, 2001) 

The arrests of Pakistani scientists Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid on October 23, 2001 in connection with their possible contacts with Al- Qaeda remains to be examined satisfactorily for countering any future nuclear terror. 

Recent media reports clearly support the argument that “the revelations concerning connections between senior Pakistani nuclear scientists and the Taleban reinforce the risk that Pakistan does not have adequate controls over its sensitive nuclear information”.

Jane’s Intelligence Digest reported that “----relations between the country’s self-appointed president, Generan Pervez Musharraf, and those scientists who actually developed the bomb for the world’s first Islamic nuclear power raise a number of awkward questions”.  (, November 1, 2001)

Pakistani officials maintain that the scientists did not pass important secrets to al-Qaeda, but they have not disclosed that “Mahmood failed multiple polygraph examinations about his activities. Most disturbing to US intelligence was another leak from Pakistan’s programme that has not been mentioned in public”.  (Washington Post, “Fear prompts US to beef up nuclear terror detection”, March 03, 2002)

Only few years back, in May 1998, the ISI of Pakistan is said to have helped in establishing a plant at Taleban stronghold, Kandahar, for the production of chemical, biological and possibly radiological weapons.  The key acquisitions were imported from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan via Pakistan.

The historical motivation of Pakistan towards developing nuclear weapons have traveled over more than three decades. The claims that had long been sought for developing non-conventional capabilities are now turning dangerous for the acquired assets.  “We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability.  The Christian, Jewish, and Hindu civilizations have this capability.  The Islamic civilization was without it, but that situation was about to change”, wrote Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from his death row prison cell in 1978 prior to his execution.  (Samina Ahmed and David Cortright, eds., “Pakistan and the Bomb”, Oxford University Press, 2000, p33). This notional value in the contemporary development programmes still remains relevant for both the revisionists and terrorists. 

Bhutto’s assertion was tuned with the Islamic zeal and the possible lead role that Pakistan expected to  assume in the Muslim world by acquiring nuclear weapons  This was later reinforced by General Zia ul-Haq in July 1978 who outlined his perception as –“ China India, the USSR and Israel in the Middle East possess the atomic arm.  No Muslim country has any.  If Pakistan has such a weapon, it would reinforce the power of the Muslim world”.  (Yossef Bodansky, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Brinkmanship”, Part I, January 1998, p.2) 

The situation may become more precarious when close nexus between state institutions, like military, ISI and Jehadi groups, try to dominate over the ideologies of democratic norms and agencies. 

The word Jehad in Islam is being interpreted in various ways and meanings.  Whether Jehad means to fight back the threat to Islam due to any breach or suppression of faith or Jehad is an expansionist ideology of Islamic interest groups is still contested. It is an acknowledged fact that Pakistan has a history of close collaboration with the Jehadi groups to help Islamabad achieve political goals both inside and outside Pakistan.  But it was seldom realized that one day this opportunistic convergence could also have negative impact for the state itself in Pakistan. 

The continued ties of fundamentalist groups and their sympathizers in civil and military leaderships pose considerable threat to the social construct of Pakistan. Prevailing weak economy of the country further adds to the possibility of getting ignorant individuals falling into the trap of quick money by supporting the money launderers who operate on behalf of the fundamentalist entities and terrorist networks. 

Such domestic vulnerabilities in Pakistan widen the scope of theft of or attacks to country’s strategic assets, mainly nuclear devices and materials.  The physical security of nuclear installations and storage of radioactive materials may become more prone to the reach or attacks of the disaffected groups even within the country.

Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf was quoted saying in June 2001 as “Pakistan’s N-deterrence to stay”.  (The Hindustan Times, June 26, 2001).  However, his fear for the safety of country’s strategic assets was quite evident from the media reports after September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent international pressure on Islamabad to reveiew its control over strategic holdings.

Musharraf was reported in November 2001 of getting scared of possible pre-emptive strikes against country’s nuclear facilities.  Subsequently, he was also reported to have ordered an emergency redeployment of nuclear arsenals to at least six secret sites.  The possible relocations, as believed, had begun only after two days of September 11 attacks.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar, however, was quoted saying on November 2, 2001 that “Pakistan has an impeccable record of custodial safety and security free of any incident of theft or leakage of nuclear material, equipment or technology”.  This statement was quoted in one report –“US worries about Pakistan Nuclear arms: officials try to guard against arsenal, radioactive material going to terrorists”, by Washington Post, November 4, 2002.

The Sunday Times, November 5, 2001, reported to the extent that Islamabad had to even consider removing warheads to China, Pakistan’s closest strategic ally in the region.

Through Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority notification No. 43(I)/2002, Islamabad is said to have put in place a new nuclear disaster management mechanism.  This PNRA notification includes regulations dealing with safe operation of nuclear plants, safety assessment and failure identifications etc.

Center for Strategic and International Studies in its report “The Threat of Pakistani Nuclear Weapons”, November 8, 2001, p.2, explains that one of the “worst cases” that could come out of the Afghan crisis is some form of Islamic coup or terrorism involving Pakistani nuclear weapons.  In theory, such weapons are well dispersed and under tight security.  The warheads are stored separately from the delivery systems and the cores of the weapons are kept separate from the main assembly of the weapon.  In practice, no one knows if the Pakistani assurances relating to such weapons are true.

In the ISIS Issue Brief, “Securing Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal: Principles for Assistance”, October 4, 2001, David Albright, Kevin O'Neill and Corey Hinderstein, mentioned that “available information suggests that, despite official statements to the contrary, the Pakistani government may not have full confidence in the security of its nuclear arsenal.”

Despite all critical appraisals of nuclear Pakistan, Foreign office spokesman categorically reiterated in a press briefing on February 21, 2002, the Pakistan’s commitment “not to roll back its nuclear programme under any pressure”.  Such commitments, however, needs adequate resolve against possible pilferage and misuse of weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan is yet to satisfy this resolve before the world community.

Pakistan’s inability to solve its internal problems as well as its relentless support to hardliners in the name of Jejad  not only destabilises the Asian security environment but also may adversely affect the future of regional and international nuclear security.  The existence of nuclear weapons in Pakistan have become more vulnerable to international security than ever before. 

The Regional Concern:

In March 2000 US President Bill Clinton had called South Asia as “the most dangerous place in the world”.  After only two months in May 2000, U.S. officials claimed that Pakistan has made limited preparations for a potential future nuclear test. Pakistan denied the allegations (“Pakistan Nuclear Milestones”, The Risk Report Volume 6 Number 5, September-October 2000)

In the pursuit of covering the gap of conventional superiority of India, Pakistan has been following all fair or foul methods of acquiring nuclear and missile capabilities.  The concept of deterrence goes beyond the traditional notion of “have it but not use it”.

Pakistan’s intention to use nuclear weapons against India has a long history of self-prudence.  It is said that on “three occasions -in mid 1980s, in 1987 and April-May 1990” (for details see, Pakistan had considered to take nuclear strikes against India but restrained each time to wage such catastrophic attempt.

If one is to believe  what John Pike, the Director of Public Eye Project of Federation of American Scientists, had stated as early as in March 2000, the peace and stability of whole Asian region must be on stake.  John Pike was quoted saying that “ Pakistan has laid the groundwork for a force of dozens of nuclear tipped missiles capable of striking Indian cities and military bases”.  Any miscalculated pre-emptive Pakistani strike against India may be of catastrophic results to come.

Conclusion :

Transparency often lacks in the issues related to nuclear and missile development programmes of a country.  Safety and security of the strategic capabilities lies primarily on the wisdom of the possessor state.

In Pakistan, the vulnerabilities to the overstretching desire of acquiring non-conventional capabilities have achieved multidimensional threatening postures.

The world community needs to ponder over the potential risks of nuclear threats that may emanate from nuclear Pakistan. Only an appropriate revision and consequent suggestive policy adoption could deter any mass destruction in future. Both the critics and the supporters of Islamabad’s nuclear thinking, today, should equally share the view to take up the task of debating premises that could ensure international peace and security.

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