By Syed Nazakat in Delhi

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is a distinguished Pakistani nuclear and high-energy physicist. He heads the physics department in Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, where he has taught for over 36 years, and is also a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists. He was recently in Delhi to attend an international conference on security, during the sidelines of which he spoke to THE WEEK. In the interview he said that the world is rightly worried about the safety of the Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. In spite of the apparent professionalism of the Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, which has custodial responsibility of nuclear weapons, the safety of the weapons is only as good as the men who operate them. Professor Hoodbhoy said the deliberate nurturing of jihadism by the Pakistani state has, over 30 years, produced extremism inside parts of the military and intelligence services. Some parts of the establishment are today at war with other parts, he said. He shares worries about the nuclear weapons safety but does not believe they can be obtained by fundamentalist groups like al-Qaeda.

Excerpts from the interview:

Pakistan has promised to hunt down terrorists and destroy terror camps. But the efforts seem to be half-hearted.

The Taliban were products of madrasas in Pakistan and they were fully supported by the Pakistani establishment for decades. Jihadi groups were used as instruments of foreign policy. In Afghanistan, they were used in the hope of creating so-called strategic depth. But after 9/11, when General Pervez Musharraf betrayed them, some of them turned their guns on the Pakistani army. Many soldiers and officers were killed, probably as many as 2,000. The brutality of the killings, which involved torture and decapitations, had a huge psychological impact. The Pakistani army is now under attack by their own creation, and it is reacting strongly to their barbarism.

Is not the military offensive happening because of increasing pressure from the US?

The US is keen that Pakistan should fight and defeat the Taliban. However, America’s principal worry is not the part of the Taliban that attacks Pakistani troops but, instead, the part which attacks US troops in Afghanistan. I think Pakistan is fighting the Taliban largely for its own reasons now, although the US pressure is certainly there. The Taliban had pushed the Pakistani state out from most of FATA (Federally Administrated Tribal Areas). It was thus natural for the state to fight and reestablish itself. Today, the fighting has extended into Bajaur and Damadola, where the Taliban have regional headquarters.

In the coming months, the Pakistani army is going to be reshuffled. Will that affect the strategy against the Taliban?

The current ISI chief, Lt Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, is likely to get an extension. The current army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, is due to retire in November and it is unclear whether he will get an extension. However, the Pakistani army is a stable institution, and I doubt if there will be a significant change of policy.

How safe are Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? 

Nuclear weapons are not safe anywhere, which is why I think the world should try and eliminate them. But, for Pakistan, there are additional worries. Within the army, there are rogues who have successfully conspired to kill their colleagues. The general army headquarters in Rawalpindi was attacked and the ISI headquarters in Lahore, Peshawar, and Multan have been destroyed. The attackers were helped by insiders. So this raises the worry that rogues can target the custodians of nuclear weapons. Both fission weapons and fissile materials are at risk. The weapons are relatively safe because of electronic locks. However, the fissile materials could be stolen to make a crude bomb.

Do you think that the days of smuggling centrifuges out of Kahuta [Pakistan’s main uranium enrichment facility] ended with A.Q. Khan?

It is hard to say. One does not know what goes on inside the nuclear facilities. It is fairly certain that Pakistan is getting components from the international market to keep its nuclear weapons programme going. But I expect the illegal exports stopped with A.Q. Khan’s removal in 2002. Of course, I have no direct knowledge.

Osama bin Laden is said to have been interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. And he is reported to have met Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood who has served more than 30 years in the country’s nuclear programme.

If al Qaeda could get its hands on a workable nuclear weapon, you can be sure that they will use it. I am more worried about hidden extremists within the civil and military establishment having access to nuclear materials, particularly highly enriched uranium, rather than a completed weapon.

Is it possible for one scientist to smuggle or steal nuclear technology?

No, there clearly was complicity at a higher level. A.Q. Khan was shut up to prevent important names becoming known.

Who controls the Pakistani nukes?

The Strategic Plans Division is responsible for handling nuclear weapons. The SPD comes under the National Command Authority, which is formally headed by the prime minister but which, in fact, is effectively headed by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (CJSC).

Is there any estimate on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?

Estimates are that Pakistan has 70-100 nuclear warheads. These are most probably spread across the country and hidden in tunnels. It would be impossible for India to locate all of them.

What steps has Pakistan taken to ensure safety of its nuclear weapons?

The SPD lists a number of measures that include keeping the weapons partially disassembled, use of electronic locks and permissive action links (PALs), enhanced perimeter security, and psychological screening of personnel. It sounds pretty impressive, and I only hope it is all true.

What is the biggest challenge in ensuring the safety of the nuclear weapons?

Weapons are only as safe as the men who handle them. If rogues manage to infiltrate the nuclear system, it could be extremely dangerous. The system includes the SPD as well as the places where fissile material is produced and converted into nuclear cores.

There have been reports that the US has been negotiating sensitive understandings with the Pakistani military. These would allow specially trained American units to provide added security for the Pakistani arsenal in case of a crisis. What is your take on these reports?

I would discount them. The Pakistani military is sensitive about allowing the US any reliable information about the location of the nuclear weapons, their status, type, state of assembly/disassembly, and other critical information. At best, there would be partial information and, with nuclear weapons, you cannot afford to be even a little bit wrong.

 Musharraf said in May 2002 that Pakistan did not want a conflict with India, but that if it came to war between the nuclear-armed rivals, it would “respond with full might”. Do you think that, if pressed by an overwhelming conventional attack from India, Pakistan could drop a nuclear bomb on India?

Both Indian and Pakistani leaders have used this kind of language in times of crisis. This increases tensions, and could conceivably lead to a flare-up. One has to remember the inflammatory language used by L.K. Advani and George Fernandes just after the May 1998 tests that led to Pakistan going ahead with its nuclear tests.

 The next five-yearly review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will be held this year. Is a nuclear-weapon free world possible?

Eventually, yes. We must begin the process, however slow it may be. The global climate for reducing nuclear weapons is better today than ever before, thanks to President Obama. Pakistan and India should not behave as holdouts. Peace should be the only acceptable way for us.

(The Week, March 14, 2010)


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