In recent months, Pakistani officials have sought to allay concerns that the deteriorating security situation in their country would allow extremist elements to acquire nuclear weapons or materials. Political instability in Pakistan has persisted over the past year, raising questions about Islamabad’s ability to protect its nuclear assets.
In early January 2008, Islamabad criticized Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for comments made in a Jan. 8 interview with the pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper in which he expressed concern that “nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of an extremist group in Pakistan or in Afghanistan.” Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq characterized such comments Jan. 9 as “unwarranted and irresponsible,” stressing that Pakistan’s weapons are as secure as those in any other nuclear-weapon state.
Responding to Pakistan’s criticism, the agency issued a statement clarifying that ElBaradei was attempting to “call attention to the need to bolster nuclear safety and security measures” worldwide, not just in Pakistan. Although Islamabad has not signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it is a member of the IAEA and has placed a number of civilian nuclear facilities under the agency’s safeguards.
During a Jan. 27 briefing, retired Lt. General Khalid Kidwai, director-general of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, which oversees the security of the country’s nuclear arsenal, sought to reassure foreign journalists. He argued that scenarios involving the theft or takeover of Pakistani nuclear assets were unrealistic. In addition to describing steps that Islamabad has taken to enhance its nuclear security, Kidwai asserted that “[t]here’s no conceivable scenario, political or violent, in which Pakistan will fall to extremists of the al Qaeda or Taliban type.” He also noted that “the state of alertness has gone up” in recent months since domestic tensions within Pakistan have increased.
Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division serves as the secretariat of the National Command Authority, which is headed by the president and is responsible for command and control over Pakistan’s strategic weapons and infrastructure. (See ACT, December 2007. ) Both organizations were created in 1999, a year after Pakistan tested nuclear weapons.
Pakistan is believed to have produced enough nuclear material for about 60 weapons. As a security precaution, these weapons are stored unassembled, with the fissile material core kept separately from the explosive triggers.
Following Kidwai’s briefing, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf also sought to underscore the apparent confidence that the U.S. intelligence community places in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. In a Feb. 14 lecture at a Paris think tank, Musharraf argued that “[i]f you ask the head of [the] CIA or top officials of Western intelligence agencies, they will talk contrary to the point of view being projected by the Western media against Pakistan and its leadership.”
Musharraf’s reference to such an assessment by Western intelligence agencies followed the Feb. 5 testimony of top U.S. intelligence officials to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Although admitting to “vulnerabilities” in the Pakistani military’s control over its weapons complex, John Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, told the committee that “the ongoing political uncertainty in Pakistan has not seriously threatened the military’s control of the nuclear arsenal.”
Officials from neighboring nuclear rival India, however, continue to cite the risk to Pakistan’s nuclear arms. During a Feb. 18 lecture in New Delhi, Indian Special Envoy Shyam Saran cited the possibility that, “[in] a situation of chaos, Pakistan’s nuclear assets may fall into the hands of jihadi elements.”