Alarm signals flashed cross South Asia and elsewhere after a reported Taliban attack on the guard post at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra, about 65 kilometers outside Islamabad. The attack left eight dead, and revived a debate about the security of the nuclear-armed state’s arsenal.
The incident should also raise a more basic question. Or questions of that kind.
What is the degree of danger posed by such extremist assaults? Is terrorism the top nuclear threat in Pakistan? Does it deserve top priority among the targets of an anti-nuke campaign?
Above all, does not such priority for it really serve to belittle the much bigger nuclear threat – in Pakistan and elsewhere?
The questions do not mean that the attack was no cause for concern at all. Located in the Attock district in the mountainous north of Punjab, Kamra houses the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and the Pakistan Air Force’s Minhas Airbase. Islamabad tried to scoff off suggestions about Kamra as a nuclear site. Observers, however, have always seen it as harboring a major nuclear research center and a nuclear air base of the Air Force.
No official information is made available about Pakistan’s nuclear sites and facilities. But most of them are believed to be located close to Islamabad, away from the eastern border with India, though they are thus more exposed to extremist assaults.
Reports about al-Qaeda’s resolve to acquire nuclear weapons and technology remain unconfirmed. Fears on this count, however, have been fueled further by Western security experts’ recapitulation of earlier offensives targeting two sites besides the same Kamra complex – the Sargodha air base and Wah Cantonment, both close to the capital, suspected to be used for missile storage and nuclear-weapon assembly respectively.
Washington and its Western allies have combined expressions of concern over the extremist threat to the nuclear arsenal with those of confidence in Pakistan’s Army on this count. The day after the insurgent-triggered shootout in the Army headquarters in Rawalpiindi, top US and British officials reiterated this trust. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs David Miliband voiced in a London statement their “confidence in the Pakistani government’s and military’s control over nuclear weapons,” Clinton reassured the US Congress, saying that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons “are widely dispersed in the country – they are not at a central location.”
The fallacy of such assessments is the facile and rather funny assumption that the Army, with the bombs in its basement, represents no real nuclear threat. The distinction, which security experts draw between the responsible Army and the rogue extremist elements, can prove dangerously deceptive. Links between the two can no longer be denied or dismissed as a crazy theory.
In an article in the Pakistan Observer, Sultan M Hali reports that one of the “group leaders” involved “was captured alive and is singing like a canary.” The report adds that however lowly placed he may have been in the Army dispensation, he does raise apprehensions.
It also quotes a Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan as talking about the “insider-outsider collusion” in an article on nuclear security in Pakistan. The “insiders,” according to the brigadier, can be motivated by “religious” and “monetary” factors as well as “[an urge for] revenge, grudges, jealousies [and] psychiatric disorders to act against the state and become a tool of the enemy.”
This tallies with the assessment of analysts – cited recently by Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists – that “Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is most vulnerable to radicalized insiders.”
Pakistan’s anti-nuclear-weapon activist Pervez Hoodbhoy makes an important point when he argues that the Army’s system of securing its deadliest arsenal can be “only as reliable as the people who use them.”
As against this, how serious a nuclear threat can the terrorists pose by themselves? Marko Beljac, an Australian expert on nuclear terrorism, tries to answer the question in some technical detail.
He writes: “If militants capture the actual fissile cores they would not be able to detonate them. This would require them to develop their own system to implode the weapons grade uranium, which is highly unlikely given the great difficulties involved. At best they would need to mine the uranium metal from the physics package for their own pre-developed gun-assembled firing device.”
“However,” he adds, “one core would not be enough to ensure a true nuclear explosion. Pakistan’s weapons likely have about 12-15kg of uranium metal in the fissile core. This could be in the form of a sphere or hemispheres. Terrorists would need at the least about 50-60kg of uranium, in other words about 4-5 cores worth, for gun-assembly.”
“That,” concludes Beljac, “requires some heist. I don’t think even George Clooney and Brad Pitt would be able to pull it off…”
(An aside for movie buffs. Beljac seems to have “Ocean’s Eleven,” featuring both the matinee idols, in mind. The story is about a casino heist, where the key to entering the vault is a bomb powerful enough to wipe out the power in Las Vegas. A better example might have been the “Peacemaker,” where Clooney and Nicole Kidman set out in a global search of nuclear weapons stolen by international terrorists.)
As the expert sums it up, “there is a possible theft scenario but it does require a lot of ifs and buts for it to be pulled off in the real world”, as distinguished from the reel world.
The Army poses a more a more serious a threat not only because of extremist “insiders,” but, more importantly, because it can use the arsenal. It is the nuclear-equipped armies of India and Pakistan that pose the primary, real threat to the people of the entire region.
It presents a grave peril, even if it is presumed that the two don’t want to start the most destructive of wars unless subjected to nuclear attack first. Either of the sides can make a horrendous mistake that will unleash mass misery of unprecedented proportions across South Asia.
American journalist Martin Schram quotes an unnamed, former Pakistan general as mentioning three scenarios in which “a general in combat might have to issue an order to retaliate without having enough time to know for sure whether the enemy has actually attacked with a weapon carrying a nuclear warhead.”
The first is when India launches a missile that Pakistan knows is “nuclear-capable,” but this missile only has a nonnuclear warhead. It hits its Pakistani target, it may not be a nuclear explosion, “but it could be perceived …. as if a nuclear strike has already taken place.”
In the second scenario, it is a conventional attack, but the weapon hits a nuclear target, causing a radioactive plume. The instant field report is likely to call it a nuclear attack.
In the third case, a conventional attack takes out the command center. Commanders perceived it as a “decapitating attack” intended to knock out one side’s nuclear weapons.
In each case, the all too likely result will be a nuclear war, with nightmarish consequences that will make Hiroshima seem a minor calamity.
That brings us to the question of questions raised by the Kamra attack. Can the primacy given to “nuclear terrorism” in South Asia and elsewhere be a pretext under which attention is sought to be diverted from the bigger danger – posed by the arsenals of states that swear by anti-terrorism?