Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Much Ado About Something: Terror and Pakistan’s Nuclear Assets by Animesh Roul

Every Pakistan watchers knew about those events. Bill Roggio has highlighted these events in his reports too (esp. in Long War Journal). But, Shaun Gregory (“The Terrorist Threat to Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons,” CTC Sentinel, Vol. 2 (7), July 2009) has analyzed these events to expose the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the “pillar of Pakistan’s national security”.

The paper published in the CTC Sentinel (Combating Terrorism Center, West Point) has triggered a pitched debate in the region and in the Western World whether Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructures are secure or not , especially in the face of those (mentioned below) terror attacks that occurred in the last couple of years. Gregory’s article underscores three terror strikes on nuclear weapons facilities in Pakistan, questioning the physical security of the coveted nuclear assets:

“These have included an attack on the nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha on November 1, 2007, an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra by a suicide bomber on December 10, 2007, and perhaps most significantly the August 20, 2008 attack when Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers blew up several entry points to one of the armament complexes at the Wah cantonment, considered one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites.”

(Correction: The twin attack at the Wah Cantonment actually took place on August 21, Thursday, 2008, not on August 20 as chronicled in the paper)

Let’s revisit those terror events, all perpetrated by Taliban and Al Qaeda elements.

* November 1, 2007: Motorbike borne suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) bus, killing seven PAF officers and three civilians on the Faisalabad Road in Sargodha (Punjab province). The bus was carrying PAF staff from the Mushaf Mir Airbase to Kirana Ammunition Depot. This Suicide attack was targeted at the air force officials and civilians, no intention to harm or steal nuclear material, or create a radiological emergency.

* December 10, 2007: At least five schoolchildren and three others were injured when a Car borne suicide bomber exploded his vehicle targeting a Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) bus carrying air force employees’ children at Kamra air base. The blast took place on the outskirts of the PAC factories on the Qutba-Attock Road and bus was going to the Attock city.

* August 21, 2008: This was the most severe suicide attack ever carried out against military establishments. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up near the gates of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories located in the military cantonment at Wah (Attock district), killing at least 70 persons. The POF at Wah is a cluster of industrial units producing variety of arms and ammunitions for the armed forces. Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar claimed responsibility of the suicide attacks saying that they had been carried out in retaliation for military operations in Bajaur and Swat.

These terrorist acts mentioned by Gregory, were actually targeted at the security forces or civilians at the highly fortified military bases and not necessarily targeted with the aim of stealing nuclear material or creating nuclear disaster. But he has very rightly pointed out that these attacks highlighted the vulnerability of military/nuclear infrastructures in Pakistan and the myth of safety and security standard. What Gregory has missed here is that previous similar but ‘direct’ attacks on nuclear establishments by Baloch militants, e.g. mortar attack on the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) controlled establishment on the Dera Ghazi Khan-Quetta highway in May 2006. However, this event received scant media attention and subsequent cover up by Pakistan.

In all three attacks, which were very symbolic depicting‘Taliban-Military feud’ in Pakistan, these terrorists never showed the intention to create a nuclear disaster instead they claim responsibility of the mayhems and threaten for more such type of attacks against the military/police in future to avenge anti-terror operations. Of course their Al Qaeda friends have their goals intact for acquiring nuclear weapons or materials.

The point of debate: More than these three events which caught the attention of media, though lately (the paper published online on July 21, 2009) and triggered debates now especially in India, Pakistan and USA (Read News Links below) , the crux of the paper, I believe, somehow ignored or overlooked. The media picked up these terror events to highlight the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear assets (lack of adequate physical security) which might fall in the hand of terrorists or extremists, but missed out the important point of Gregory’ article. The existential threat emanating from Pakistan, the nuclear power with abysmal proliferation track records, lies somewhere else. Gregory points out that Pakistan Army could decide to transfer nuclear weapons to a terrorist group. He mentioned in his paper (citing Philip Bobbitt’s ‘Terror and Consent', and reminding us about Mirza Aslam Beg’s case of passing nuclear weapons technology to Iran in the past) that "states can become pressurized or incentivized to transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist groups because they are responding to threats from an external power but fear the consequences of being identified as the origin of a nuclear strike.” This insinuation should be the point of debate which questions the nexus between the army and its proxy warriors.

Media Reports on the Issue:

"Western, neighboring country media propelling vicious propaganda blitz against Pakistan nuclear assets: F.O", Online - International News Network, ‎August 11, 2009‎.

"Pakistan Military Denies Nuclear Security Report" , VOA News, August 12, 2009.

"Pakistan denies al-Qaida targeting nuclear facilities," The Guardian, August 12, 2009.

"Pak goes ballistic about report on nuclear complex attacks," Times of India, August 12, 2009.

"Pakistan nuke sites secure, says Pentagon," The News, August 12, 2009.

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