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Slander, speculation and sense

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, Nov 18, 2011

A totally ridiculous article," is how Dr Berry Blechman, an American expert on nuclear safety, reacted to the recent report on the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons by the Atlantic. This denunciation notwithstanding, Dr Blechman also voiced his "genuine concerns" about the Pakistani nuclear weapons in a TV show.

Asked to spell out those "genuine concerns" he came out with a tantalising hypothesis - his concerns centre around the possibility that Pakistan become a more anarchic state, followed by a conflict among various power groups. That conflict could then escalate into a civilian conflict wherein the army begins to splinter along ethnic or political lines. This splintering, he suggested, could be the unraveling of the security mechanisms around the nuclear weapons, leading possibly to the pilferage by Islamist-minded guardians of these deadly arms. Such a scenario, Dr Blechman suggested, would automatically trigger contingency plans. "The contingency would be that some groups lay hands on some weapons and in that case US would cooperate with Pakistani officials to regain control of stolen weapons." He said the military's suspected ties with terrorist groups make it difficult to believe that the Pakistani nuclear arms are safe. 

And that is precisely the synopsis of report in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder.

Pakistan lies. It hosted Osama bin Laden (knowingly or not). Its government is barely functional. It hates the democracy next door. It is home to both radical jihadists and a large and growing nuclear arsenal (which it fears the US will seize). Its intelligence service sponsors terrorists who attack American troops. With a friend like this, who needs enemies?

Coincidentally, the same subject resonated during a conversation with a Japanese Professor of Osaka University in Tokyo. The professor quipped over every response that I gave her on the subject. Then I had to ask her: have you been to Pakistan? No, she responded. "Only to India, several times." But much before she talked of India, I could feel from her tone and tenor where she got her briefs or otherwise. "Why don't you visit Pakistan?" "Oh, I think I should."

In a sharp contrast, another Japanese professor - Kenji Isezaki - peddles an entirely different line on Pakistan; I am using the example of Fukushima (the partially melted-down nuclear plant) to urge others to engage and not estrange Pakistan, Isezaki told me at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. By slander and suspicion, he suggests, the world will not get any where as far as Pakistan's nuclear weapons are concerned.

In a way, this amounted to a snub of the Atlantic's extremely provocative write-up because what underlies such writings is the possibility of military officials acting as spooks and facilitators for Al Qaeda. A dreadful scenario indeed - theoretically not impossible when viewed to the context of Brig Ali Khan and several of his cohorts, all under arrest allegedly for links to extremist groups.

While making a case to the press that Pakistan's nuclear safety weapons are vulnerable to theft, Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder make some really sweeping statements to characterise Pakistan as:

a) a country that is home to the harshest variants of Muslim fundamentalism 

b) the headquarters of the organisations that espouse these extremist ideologies

c) a country where nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads 

d) a country that has increased the pace of these movements...and that the Pakistani government is willing to make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to theft by jihadists simply to hide them from the United States, the country that funds much of its military budget

e) an unstable and violent country located at the epicenter of global jihadism,

f) the foremost supplier of nuclear technology to such rogue states as Iran and North Korea

One of the authors also took time out to draw readers attention to the news item that came out of Islamabad in conjunction with the graduation of 700 of the 8,000 personnel being trained to protect the country's nuclear arsenal. 

As if responding to the Western fears of a possible penetration of the nuclear storage sites by Islamist officers, Maj Gen Muhammad Tahir, head of security for the Strategic Plans Division - the arm of the Pakistani military tasked with protecting the nuclear arsenal - said in a written statement that the group consisted of hand-picked officers and men "who are physically robust, mentally sharp and equipped with modern weapons and equipment." General Tahir also said "extensive resources have been made available to train, equip, deploy and sustain an independent and potent security force to meet any and every threat emanating from any quarter". 

The reassuring statement on the training of the special group by Gen Tahir came as a small surprise but was not entirely unexpected. It probably underscored the increasing realisation within the military establishment that transparency probably serves it better than being discrete - the right kind of response that articles such as the one published by The Atlantic require.

But the government and the army owe the nation and its detractors many more explanations, particularly on the points raised in the Atlantic Report and listed above. Are our nuclear heads transported in an insecure way on busy roads?

The article also repeatedly talks of the "billions of dollars" for Pakistan and the army. Our officials need to come clean on this issue as well. How many billions have they received from the United State altogether? If not, why not clarify it to the world? How much has the country received under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act since January 2011? 

While one may lend credence to the claims that the nuclear weapons are totally secure, military officials must admit - based on attacks on the GHQ in October 2009, the Parade Lane Mosque in December 2009, and the PNS Mehran in May 2011 - that radical elements within the military ranks do exist and pose a direct threat to the safety of all strategic assets as well as to the interests of the armed forces as a whole. 

The entire safety mechanism will stand in jeopardy if one or two or several "lone wolves" were to quietly join hands to breach the barriers for taking out nuclear weapons. Complacency and denial do not preclude to threats that stem from ideologically driven and politically committed guardians of strategic assets. While slander and wild speculation deserve rejection and condemnation, the need for foolproof security around nuclear arsenal must remain the top priority. 

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk