Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Is Push Coming to Shove on Pakistan's Nukes?

On 13 January Pakistan Television aired an interview with Air Commodore Khalid Banuri, the person in charge of the country's "nuclear assets." Its transcript was published with an introduction by the interviewer, journalist Ahmed Quraishi, who headlined it "Pakistan's Nukes Are Here To Stay -- Get Used To It."

On 22 January The Guardian in Britain published an article by Ian Traynor, its correspondent in Brussels, headlined "Pre-emptive nuclear strike a key option, NATO told." It reported that a 150-page report by a group of tip-level strategists said the: "West must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to try to halt the 'imminent" spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction'."

According to The Guardian, the report argued that the "values and way of life" of the West were "under threat from political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism; the "dark side" of globalisation (i.e. international terrorism; organised crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction); climate change and energy security, entailing a contest for resources and potential "environmental" migration on a mass scale; the weakening of the nation state as well as of organisations such as the UN, Nato and the EU. The circumstances required NATO to forgo the consensus rule, disallow a voice in decision-making for countries not operationally involved, and resort to the use of force without UN security council authorisation when "immediate action is needed to protect large numbers of human beings."

The two stories highlight the worsening security climate in Asia that I have noted in earlier posts, and almost certainly hide complex undercurrents in transatlantic relationships. Given the old British connection with the ISI, and the recently advertised loss of control by the latter of jihadist groups, Pakistan's nuclear weapons have become a wild card in the emerging intra-Western power struggle. In that context, the story on Pakistan Television asserting the government's firm control of its nuclear arsenal is calculated not to reassure the United States but to undermine its post 9/11 confidence that the "Islamic bomb" is under its control. This is very clear in Quraishi's introduction to the transcript of the interview.

Quraishi recounted that in November 2007 The New York Times had published "what many analysts in Islamabad described as a misleading story, claiming that the United States had spent up to $ 100 million over the past five years to help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons." That story had "coincided with reports alleging that elite US troops already had access to Pakistan’s vast arsenal of nuclear and other strategic weapons." At the time, Pakistani officials had ignored the reports, "confident about their capabilities and a little curious about where these bogus stories were coming from."

Initially, Quraishi wrote, they accepted assurances the Bush administration had nothing to do with the reports but were increasingly concerned as a US "media campaign" began to portray Pakistan "as a nuclear power incapable of securing its weapons," and there was talk of war games meant to "grab Pakistani nuclear weapons" in case of instability in the country. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had even "proposed joint American and British ‘supervision’ of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons."

While those in charge of Pakistan's nuclear weapons tended to dismiss such talk, Quraishi reported, others viewed it "in the context of a deliberate US strategy to destabilize Pakistan." That assessment had led the chairman of Pakistan's Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Tariq Majid, to publicly blast the reports in an official statement on 11 December 2007 as the work of “vested and hostile elements in the international media.” In any such scenario, he said, "Pakistan would meet the challenge strongly." Quraishi asked Air Commodore Banuri "what Pakistan would do if its strategic installations came under attack." Banuri responded: Don’t mess with us.” The rest of the conversation went as follows:

Ahmed Quraishi: Who holds the authority to push the nuclear button in Pakistan?

Khaled Banuri: The short answer is very easy: Not an individual but the National Command Authority, comprised of all the senior decision makers of the country, [they] would look at all the issues including the deployment, if it ever comes to that.

AQ: Is it possible there could be a scientist on the inside, an extremist with links to terrorists, maybe Osama bin Laden, who could steal a Pakistani weapon …

KB: In a Tom Clancy fiction that could be a possibility. We are very sure of what our systems are.

AQ: What about the reports before 9/11 that mentioned the links between some of the scientists in our strategic programs, names, who met terrorists in Afghanistan?

KB: Those names, when you actually go into the details, had nothing to do with the classified side of our programs,[they might have been] some people from the system who perhaps were power plant engineers who had some sympathies and were doing some charity work. The key thing here is that Pakistan investigated those situations and now we have a system that takes care of all aspects, even for our very respected scientists who retire. There is a system where they will be occupied in various ways and we will know what they are doing.

AQ: Let’s say there is a violent change of government in Islamabad. Someone hiding in the foothills of Islamabad breaks into one of your facilities, kills 5 or 6 guards, goes inside, picks up one of those nuclear weapons held in a very elaborate security parameter, takes it out, comes out of the building, puts it in the back of a truck or van and speeds away. How possible is this scenario?

KB: Absolutely not possible. But it is a fair question. We have several layers—a multitude of systems of security and technical solutions for security, some of which are non-intrusive and invisible. There are no exceptions for anyone from the outside going into a facility. There are various levels of access. Then there is the issue of insider threat. Not possible. We look at each individual who works within the system very closely. We look at them from various angles, something that the West knows at ‘personal reliability’, the human factor. We look into everything, background checks, medical records, police records, any history of possible impulsive behavior. And if there is anyone who doesn’t have a smooth graph of behavior, they are not put into any sensitive jobs. Even if there is someone in personal distress, for example because of a death in the family, there is a way for relieving them for a few days from sensitive responsibility.

AQ: So the cinematic perception of a Pakistani equivalent of a suitcase carried at all times by the President or the Prime Minister, containing the button for a nuclear missile or something, is not correct?

KB: The decision making about nuclear assets is very carefully thought out. It’s not a hair trigger situation. We all have seen many Cold War movies and many of these idea come from them.

AQ: Well said. Where are we keeping our nuclear bombs?

KB: The response to this question is in two words: Strategic Ambiguity. If anyone even claims he knows where our weapons are, they are wrong. And if they think they do, they are in for a rude shock. Even within the system, if someone doesn’t need to know about sensitive sites, they don’t have that information. So very few in Pakistan would know where they are. And I’m not going to tell you [smiling].

AQ: Really, I was kind of hoping for a hint. Okay, are the safeguards in the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel and India any better than the Pakistani nuclear safeguards?

KB: Even if I sound arrogant, ours are better. We have the advantage of hindsight. We have worked hard, we have trained hard, and we are very sure of what we have. We have learned from the best international practices. We don’t have aircrafts flying around with unauthorized nuclear missiles and we have a short nuclear history compared to some of the countries you mentioned.

AQ: Media reports have suggested that the Americans have helped Pakistan secure its nuclear assets, which implies that the Americans have access to Pakistani nukes?

KB: Ensuring nuclear security is our own interest. We made the bomb, we have the means to protect it, and we’re confident of that security. But we do not mind exposure to education and awareness, but in a completely non-intrusive way.

AQ: So you’re saying you have exchanged ideas with the Americans but not given them any access?

KB: Absolutely. That’s out of the question. That’s the red line that was defined even before we got into this exchange of ideas. We do have some rudimentary equipment and some training [from the U.S.]. And the kinds of figures you have seen in the media [about U.S. financial aid to secure Pakistani nuclear assets] are highly exaggerated.

AQ: The figure quoted was in the tens of millions …

KB: A $100 million was quoted in one report [New York Times, Nov. 2007]. Nowhere in that range.

AQ: Really?

KB: Nowhere.

AQ: Some Pakistanis are concerned and are asking what if the rudimentary equipment handed over to you contained a transmitter that could send out signals to a satellite or something exposing where our installations are?

KB: You have responded to the question yourself. Anyone concerned in Pakistan would have thought about this. The Pakistani nuclear establishment is always concerned about even the remotest of possibilities. We have this responsibility on behalf of this whole nation. It’s a sacred responsibility.

AQ: So let me put this to rest once and for all: you have not given access to the Americans as part of accepting their ‘help’?

KB: No access whatsoever. There are no foreigners who have any access to any Pakistani assets and they will never have. There are very few Pakistanis, even within our policy circle, who have all the information.

AQ: Does everyone concerned inside and outside the region understand there will be consequences if Pakistan’s strategic assets are attacked?

KB: Let me say it in plain words: Those who have hostile intent would know that any endeavor to attack Pakistan in any way will not be successful and it will be disastrous. Our weapons are meant for deterrence and not for [aggression]. But we have the capability to deal with any threat.

AQ: So we will respond if we are attacked?

KB: My message is: Don’t mess with us.

AQ: Late Mrs. Benazir Bhutto had publicly warned a few weeks before her tragic death that extremists could descend on the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and take control of the nearby nuclear installations at Kahuta. Is this true?

KB: I don’t want to get into the politics of this statement. But I’d like to make two points. One, Pakistan’s nuclear assets are safe and secure. I say this with a lot of confidence. And, Two, I’d request all Pakistanis, wherever they are, that they should not mix politics with nuclear security.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Hi there,

Thanks for your comment on my blog--you were my first one!

I have only read a couple of your posts but found them very informative. I am ashamed to admit I don't keep up with international news nearly as much as I should...