Brahma Chellaney

The real threat of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan’s weapons of mass destruction comes from jihadists within the military, intelligence and nuclear establishments, not from the Taliban.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned of the “unthinkable” in Pakistan: Islamists getting “the keys to the nuclear arsenal.” So, does the United States have a contingency plan to forestall that and, if so, can the plan work, given the record of American policy on Pakistan thus far?

Pakistan’s nuclear-stockpile security is handled by the so-called Strategic Plans Division, with a special, 1,000-troop unit. But as Ms Clinton acknowledged, the Pakistani nukes are “widely dispersed,” with the storage sites extending beyond the Punjab heartland to the Sind and Baluchistan provinces. Add to that America’s admittedly limited knowledge on the location of these sites. The U.S. may thus have few good options to pre-emptively seize the nuclear arms before an Islamist takeover of Pakistan.

To be sure, the Strategic Plans Division — the keeper of the country’s nuclear secrets — is headed by a U.S.-backed general, Khalid Kidwai, who was held in India as a prisoner of the 1971 war and released following the 1972 Shimla Agreement. Mr. Kidwai has headed the SPD ever since it was created after the 1998 nuclear tests.

It was on Mr. Kidwai’s watch that the infamous A.Q. Khan-led nuclear-smuggling ring remained in operation. How reassuring is that fact? Indeed, it was Mr. Kidwai whom military ruler Pervez Musharraf used to extract a tutored confession from Khan so that the entire blame for the illicit nuclear ring could fall on a single individual, sparing the military establishment — a charade the Bush administration readily went along with.

To tamp down growing international concerns over the safety of Pakistan’s “crown jewels” and to win congressional passage of his record-level aid package for Pakistan, U.S. President Barack Obama said on April 29: “I’m confident we can make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure, primarily, initially, because the Pakistani army, I think, recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands.” Mr. Obama’s confidence is rooted unbelievably in his belief that the jihadist-penetrated Pakistani army is taking cognizance of such perils. In fact, he suggested Washington still trusts the Pakistani army with custodial control of nuclear assets, thereby compounding the simultaneous insult he hurled at President Asif Ali Zardari’s elected government in calling it “very fragile,” ineffectual and unable “to gain the support and loyalty” of the Pakistani people.

Mr. Obama’s comments, made just before he received Mr. Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a trilateral meeting, drew attention to the long-standing U.S. policy partiality for Pakistani generals at a time when the real Islamist-takeover threat comes from jihadists within the increasingly radicalized Pakistani military. Rather than help build robust civilian institutions, Washington for five decades propped up military rulers and still continues to pamper the Pakistani military establishment, best illustrated by the fresh $3-billion military aid package and new joint cooperation between the CIA and the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon tellingly occurred not under civilian rule but under military rule. Also, before Musharraf’s nearly nine-year dictatorship, few in the world looked at Pakistan as a failing state.

Today, how can Pakistan become a “normal” state if its military, intelligence and nuclear establishments remain outside civilian oversight, with the decisive power still with the army? Yet when the new civilian government ordered the ISI last July to report to the Interior Ministry, it did not receive support from Washington, allowing the army to quickly frustrate the move. The command and control over Pakistan’s nuclear assets vests with the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, with Mr. Zardari just the titular chair of the National Command Authority, dominated by military and intelligence leaders.

In such an aberrant setting, can the U.S. really hope to prevent jihadist control of Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons, including pathogens no less dangerous than (as Senator Richard Lugar pointed out) the H1N1 virus? Bountiful U.S. aid indeed permits Pakistan to plough more of its domestic resources into weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as exemplified by the two new plutonium-production reactors under construction at Khushab. Existing WMD in a country teaming with jihadists are a matter of deep global concern; an expanding arsenal makes the scenario nightmarish.

Let’s just say it: The U.S. first allowed Pakistan to acquire the nuclear bomb by turning a blind eye to its illicit procurement of blueprints and items during the 1970s and 1980s. Then, when the clandestine nuclear importers morphed into covert nuclear exporters, the U.S. admittedly failed to detect their proliferation activities for 16 long years. Worse still, as shown by A.Q. Khan’s release from house arrest and the collapse of international investigations, Washington has not been interested in fully investigating that ring or in bringing its ringleaders to justice.

Khan’s discharge followed Switzerland’s release of the two Tinner brothers who, along with their father, were important conduits in the Pakistani ring. One of the brothers, Urs Tinner, has acknowledged working undercover for the CIA. In fact, the CIA shielded A.Q. Khan for long. As the former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has revealed, the CIA protected Khan from arrest and prosecution in Europe in 1975 and 1986.

Today, with Pakistani officials doggedly deflecting U.S. requests for details, CIA director Leon Panetta has acknowledged that America lacks “the intelligence to know” where all of Pakistan’s nuclear-storage sites are located. Although the U.S. has provided some $100 million worth of technical assistance to Islamabad under its International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation programme, American personnel have been denied access to most Pakistani nuclear sites.

Although it has refused to sell “Permissive Action Links” (PALs) — primary electronic locks embedded in weapon design — America has helped Pakistan design a system of controls, barriers and sensors, including improvised secondary-locking devices added to already-built weapons. But rather than let Americans enter its sites, Pakistan sent its personnel for on-site training in America. Put simply, the U.S. has not been allowed to see how its money has been used in practice.

Modern security and accounting systems, in any event, can be of little value in the face of insider threats. The real threat of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan’s WMD comes not from jihadists outside, but from jihadists within the system — specifically, from the jihadist-infiltrated military, intelligence and nuclear establishments. Yet, with the Obama administration hyping the Pakistani Taliban threat to win early congressional passage of record-level aid for Islamabad, international concerns have centred on outsider threats. The Taliban, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan, has not been active outside the Pashtun regions, and there is no evidence of any nuclear assets being present in the troubled Pakistani Pashtun areas.

Actually, Pakistan has emulated India’s example in storing nukes in disassembled form, with the warheads and delivery vehicles stowed in separate facilities. For outsiders to acquire even one complete bomb, capture of at least two facilities would be necessary, along with the expertise to mate the fissile “core” and trigger with the delivery vehicle. This is unlikely to happen without military generals and other senior insiders actively colluding with the outsiders.

Insider threats indeed have repeatedly been exposed — from the ring that sold centrifuge technology and bomb designs to the jihadist charity set up by two senior nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majeed. Mahmood, who once served as A.Q. Khan’s boss and designed the first Khushab reactor, advocated that the Pakistani nukes were the property of the whole ummah and, therefore, Pakistan had a duty to share nuclear technology with other Muslim states. Weeks before 9/11, “Mahmood and Majeed met with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan,” then CIA chief George Tenet writes in his memoirs, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA. “There, around a campfire, they discussed how Al-Qaeda should go about building a nuclear device.”

Pakistan serves as a reminder that programmes to screen and monitor personnel can mean little when jihad-spouting personnel abound in the military and nuclear establishments. Such personnel are potential sleepers for extremist groups.

Safeguarding WMD demands a stable, moderate Pakistan. That, in turn, calls for sustained international political investment in building and strengthening civilian institutions. But is that possible without a clear break from politically expedient U.S. policies that continue to prop up a meddling army, fatten the ISI and encourage the military, intelligence and nuclear establishments to stay not accountable to the elected government? Even Secretary Clinton was constrained to admit that “our policy toward Pakistan over the last 30 years has been incoherent.” The most likely scenario of Pakistani WMD falling into Islamist hands is an intra-military struggle in which the jihadists gain ascendancy.