Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and its security are back in the news with a bang. With the world media linking the revived issue largely to the post-9/11 "war on terror," the headlines do not highlight its ominous importance for South Asian security or its urgent lessons for the Obama administration.
Three developments have triggered the renewed anxiety over what Pakistan's militarists regard as the country's "crown jewels." The recent report about the number of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, suggesting rapid progress in the most perilous of its programs, comes as the latest cause for concern. The earlier WikiLeaks disclosures made the same point in the language of diplomatic messages. Last but not the least of the alarms was raised after an assassination that has shaken Pakistan, its Punjab province in particular.
According to the media report, which is supported by several experts, including David Albright of Washington, DC's Institute for Science and International Security, Pakistan has doubled its nuclear arms stockpile over the past four years, to 110 warheads. Pakistan has also developed new missiles to deliver them, besides accelerating weapon-grade uranium and plutonium production. The new tally meant that the South Asian nation had replaced the UK as the fifth-ranking among the declared nuclear-weapon states (that is, excluding Israel).
The report gained plausibility from a December 2010 WikiLeaks disclosure. A classified US State Department cable revealed that Peter Lavoie, the US national intelligence officer for South Asia, told North American Treaty Organization (NATO) officials that "despite a pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world."
The assassination on January 4, 2011, of then-Punjab governor Salman Taseer by one of his own security guards has added considerably to the anxiety. Taseer's punishment for the crime of denouncing the "blasphemy law" came as tragic disproof, for many experts, of a major official argument to back the claim about the safety of the nuclear stockpile.
Fears have been frequently voiced about ideologically motivated "insiders" carrying out nuclear thefts for "non-state actors" or Islamist terrorists even if the nuclear assets were otherwise well guarded. Islamabad and the Pakistani Army have sought to allay these fears by pointing to Pakistan’s Personnel Reliability Program, which evaluates the personnel managing the country's burgeoning stockpile of nuclear bombs and fissile material as well as bodyguards for governors. Taseer's assassin was from the Elite Force of the Punjab police, who are specially raised and trained to fight against terrorism and to protect "very important persons."
We have not heard of concrete proposals to ensure the reliability of such personnel. None can be implemented easily, considering that about 130,000 persons are involved in the country's nuclear and missile programs.
We are hearing, ,however, loud and clear threats by both Pakistan and India to launch a new nuclear arms race. Both the countries, which joined George W. Bush's "war on terror" as unlikely allies back in 2001, are blaming the US for the new stage in their reckless nuclear rivalry.
Pakistan has cited US facilitation of India's entry into the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as the starting gun fired for a fresh nuclear arms race. On January 26, 2011, Zamir Akram, Islamabad's permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva said, "The accumulative impact of this decision [of the US] would be to destabilize the security environment in South Asia, which would retard progress on nonproliferation, arms control and disarmament measures.”
NSG membership, he added, would enable India to further expand its nuclear cooperation agreements and enhance its nuclear weapons and delivery capability, in response to which Pakistan would be "forced” into taking measures to “ensure the credibility of its strategic deterrence.”
New Delhi has not made any similar official comment, but India's nuclear establishment has made its views known through the media. A February 1, 2011, analysis in the daily The Times of India, for example, said: "Most Indian analysts believe Washington has generally winked at Pakistan's egregious nuclear build-up because of other strategic concerns." The analysis added: "There are no signs Washington is doing much to budge its ally or restrain its production of nuclear weapons, despite the $ 7.5 billion U.S. aid through Kerry-Lugar bill being conditioned on regular assessments of whether any of the money 'directly or indirectly' aided the expansion of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program."
In what seemed a veiled threat, nuclear scientist K. Santhanam, associated with India's nuclear weapon tests of 1998, said, "Our plutonium-based nuclear program is stronger and the plutonium produced can help make more than 100 weapons."
Strategic expert C. Uday Bhaskar sounded less sanguine: "Pakistan has overtaken us in terms of warhead inventory. It's a matter of concern. It has the potential to destabilize strategic equilibrium in the region.... [Pakistan] is the only country that is cranking up both the plutonium and uranium routes."
On New Year’s Day, India and Pakistan exchanged lists of each other’s nuclear installations. A month after this "confidence-building measure," the peace-loving people of the two countries can only wonder about the number of nuclear exchanges their masters are preparing for.