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The Mehran attack raises questions about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

By Syed Nazakat in Delhi

Pakistan’s interior minister Rahman Malik was at a loss for words when he described the terrorist attack on the PNS Mehran naval station at Faisal air base in Karachi, one of the most secured military bases in the country. In a hurriedly called press conference, he said the attackers were dressed like characters of Star Wars. Though it was not clear what Malik meant, the attack left no doubt about the capability of the Pakistan Taliban. The attack was a hunting reminder how easy it seemed to be for terrorists to storm the military base which is situated only a few miles from where a Pakistan stores some of its nuclear weapons. The attack appeared to have been planned from a map of the facility as gunmen were aware of the security protocol at the base and carried themselves like Army soldiers.

The attack, as many in Pakistan now suspect, could only have happened with help of insiders within the base – perhaps disaffected military personnel angry at Pak Navy’s support to the US operations. Contrary to earlier reports, 10 to 12 armed attackers, according to Karachi Police FIR (447/2011), jumped into the military base from the eastern part of the facility to carry out the assault. They killed 14 security personnel and destroyed two American-supplied long-range surveillance aircraft P-3C Orion. Four of the attackers were killed and there is no news about the rest. “The attack was frightening. It gave a serious blow to Pakistan military’s capacity to protect its own bases and assets,” said Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general of Pakistan army.

That the attack, apparently by the Pakistan Taliban, took place over 1,000 Kilometres away from Taliban infested mountainous region of Peshawar and North Waziristan, in well-guarded military base in Karachi, revealed the spread of Taliban inside Pakistan. Once inside the Mehran naval base which is also the headquarters of the Pakistan navy’s air wing, the attackers split into smaller groups of three, and spread themselves across the facility – a tactic used in previous attacks on other security installations, and even in the March 2009 attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Their first targets were aircraft parked on the tarmac and equipment in nearby hangers. Before the fighting was over, the attackers had destroyed two American-supplied long-range surveillance aircraft, P-3C Orion aircraft, costing an estimated $US36 million. The P-3C Orion aircraft which form a key to Indian Navy operational capability had only been given by the US a year ago. None of the six American contractors who help maintain the Orion aircraft at the base were injured during the attack. The attack on the navy base in Karachi marked the deepest strike into an armed forces facility since militants stormed the Pak Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009. The perpetrators of previous attacks, like the siege of the army’s headquarters, were found to have links to low-ranking military personnel with fundamentalist views. Within the army, there are rogues who have in the past 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. Pakistan’s own investigation found attackers were helped by insiders. “The latest attack will encourage militants to plan bigger and deadlier attacks against other high-value targets,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on Taliban. “The incidents will also strengthen those who claim Pakistan’s nuclear assets are not safe.”

The attack left Pakistan shocked as they were still questioning how an American commando team entered Pakistani airspace unnoticed on the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden earlier this month. At the moment, few believe that Taliban could attack the nuclear facilities. But each attack in Pakistan is a hunting reminder that when militants can reach into the heart of the powerful military establishment — perhaps one day they could steal or destroy nuclear weapons. In a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson informed the Washington that the major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon. Pakistan has insisted there was no danger of the country’s strategic assets falling into the wrong hands. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s leading nuclear expert, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, says there is genuine concern about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. “Both fission weapons and fissile materials are at risk,” Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy told THE WEEK. “I’m 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.”

Pakistan’s army’s Strategic Plans Division, a unit of about 10,000 members is responsible for handling 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) and psychological screening of personnel. Pakistan has estimated 70 to 100 nuclear warheads, designed to be delivered by missiles or fighter jets, which are most probably spread across the country and hidden in deep tunnels. While some of the nuclear manufacturing infrastructure is believed to be located in Golra, Kahuta and Fatehjang most of the actual nuclear weapon storage sites are likely to be in military bases like Sargodha, Wah and Masroor. According to Washington- based research center, Institute for Science and International Security, Pakistan is able to increase its nuclear arsenal by seven to 14 warheads per year. Pakistan’s addition of three plutonium reactors at its army-controlled Khushab nuclear complex will in coming years allow it to double its annual production of warheads. The worry is that more nuclear weapons mean more people having access to the weapons facilities. “Weapons are only as safe as the men who handle them. If rogues manage to infiltrate the nuclear system, it could be extremely dangerous,” Michael Krepon, Co-founder of the Washington based American think tank, The Stimson Center, recently told THE WEEK.

Within Pakistan there is also fear in the wake of the Navy SEALs raid that its prized nuclear weapons are not safe from an external attack. 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. But the Pakistani military is extremely sensitive about allowing the US any reliable information about the location of the nuclear weapons, their status, type and other critical information. Rahimullah Yusufzai believes the killing of civilian in the US drone attacks has even infuriated people within the the Pakistan military. They ask whose war are we fighting?, ” said Yusufzai. He says the attack reinforces the fear that some people within the system might be helping the Taliban to upset the Pakistan administration cooperation with the US. “There is a general consensus in Pakistan that for some one’s war we have jeopardised our own country.”

The selective approach to deal with the terrorist groups and Taliban has caught Pakistan into a cesspool of terrible violence and left the country at the edge of destabilisation. The news coming out from the US court room how David Headley was handled by the serving Pakistani army officers to create mayhem in Mumbai confirms India’s assessment about Pakistan’s double game. Ironically though the tactics gunmen are using now in Pakistan resemble to those of militants groups like LeT adopted and honed in Kashmir and Taliban in Afghanistan. Now they are using them on Pakistan military. “Every fresh attack is becoming a blue print for next one,” said Lt. Gen (retd.) Masood. “Nobody knows where it ends”

(THE WEEL, June 5, 2011)

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