Pakistan says its nuclear assets are safe from terrorists

Operational chief of country's atom bombs says 10,000 soldiers keep weapons safe and $10m. in US assistance received to enhance security.

Pakistan Ghauri missile  (photo credit: )
Pakistan Ghauri missile
(photo credit: )
Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists cannot gain control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons because of the military's fail-safe security system and a political climate that precludes a takeover by religious extremists, a top official said Saturday. In a rare media briefing to dispel international concerns, the operational chief of the Muslim world's only atom bombs also revealed that Pakistan uses 10,000 soldiers to keep the weapons safe and has received up to $10 million in US assistance to enhance security. "There's no conceivable scenario, political or violent, in which Pakistan will fall to extremists of the al-Qaida or Taliban type," Khalid Kidwai, head of the Strategic Plans Division which handles Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, told foreign journalists. "Pakistan's nuclear weapons, fissile material and infrastructure are absolutely safe and secure." Kidwai, a retired general, said his division still planned for any contingency and has reassessed the militant threat in light of escalating attacks on security forces and intelligence personnel, although it had received no information of a terrorist plot against the nuclear facilities. "You are always responding to threats, the last six months is no exception," he said. "The state of alertness has gone up." Secrecy has always surrounded Pakistan's nuclear program, initiated under the radar of international regulators in 1975 to provide a deterrent against archrival India. Pakistan only went public when it tested its own bomb in 1998 in response to a test by its South Asian neighbor. While improved bilateral relations have quelled fears of a holocaust on the subcontinent, worries over Pakistan's nuclear security deepened when the chief scientist behind its uranium enrichment program, A. Q. Khan, was exposed in early 2004 as having sold sensitive technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistan has since instituted a command and control system to prevent a repeat, but as Taliban fighters have expanded their reach beyond the Afghan border and al-Qaida has reportedly regrouped, new questions have arisen over the volatile country's ability to safeguard its nuclear deterrent. Media reports have said the Pentagon has contingency plans for seizing Pakistan's nuclear facilities if they ever fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. Kidwai described that as "irresponsible talk" and said the United States would not be able to succeed in such an operation. His candid briefing came at the prompting of President Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally in its war on terror, who is under increasing political pressure at home because of his unpopular maneuvering to stay in power. Kidwai covered the safeguards in place to prevent accidental use of a bomb, details about the interrogation of Khan, and even an overview of the procedure for launching a nuclear strike. Foreign diplomats received similar briefings earlier this month, and Western military officials have expressed confidence in the safety steps Pakistan has taken. Kidwai said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, Pakistan had accepted $8 million-US$10 million dollars in US aid to enhance physical security of its nuclear assets and for training. He said Pakistan had insisted that no outsiders, including Americans, would come to Pakistan as a condition for acceptance of the aid. The US was supporting the establishment of an academy for Pakistani nuclear personnel that he hoped would be up and running in 18 to 24 months. Asked about Pakistan's nuclear capability, he said it could both initiate a nuclear attack and retaliate to a similar strike in a nuclear exchange, but maintained Pakistan was not in a nuclear arms race with India, and only wanted to have enough weapons for a credible deterrent. Any decision on using a nuclear weapon would rest with the 10-member National Command Authority of military and political leaders, chaired by the president, "hopefully by consensus but at least by majority," Kidwai said. The decision would be conveyed to the Strategic Plans Division and then through the military chain of command. Having given the order, the National Command Authority could still call off a nuclear strike at the last minute, even if a pilot had left Pakistani airspace. An authorization code was needed by a pilot or officer commanding a missile-launch from the ground to finally press the button. Kidwai said a security division, led by a two-star general and manned by 10,000 professional soldiers, guarded the nuclear facilities and served as a dedicated intelligence network, rather than Pakistan's main spy agencies - including the powerful Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate, which has historically supported Islamic militant groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan. He said some 2,000 scientists working in particularly sensitive areas of the nuclear program were subject to intense scrutiny throughout their lives. This included regular reports on their political, financial and moral background, and their medical and psychological fitness. Kidwai acknowledged one serious breach of security when two Pakistani nuclear scientists met with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, during the rule of the Taliban regime. They were detained for three months after the Sept. 11 attacks and subjected to lie-detector tests. The probe cleared the two men and established "nothing dangerous had happened," he said. Khan, the scientist who became a national hero for his role in developing Pakistan's atomic bomb, remains under house detention in a villa in a residential part of Islamabad for his role in selling nuclear secrets. Pakistan insists the government was unaware of his dealings, but it refuses to allow foreign investigators to question him in person. Kidwai, who helped interrogate Khan, said the scientist began spreading technology to Iran in 1987, but authorities had only "started smelling something was wrong" in 1999. Khan was removed from his position in April 2001, as to summarily remove him would have been politically difficult. "His status as a national hero was very high then. It remains high now," Kidwai said.