- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

The consecutive crises that have shaken Pakistan in recent weeks highlight a common concern: the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The apparent export of Pakistani nuclear know-how to Libya and the alarming attempts on the life of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have implications for Pakistan’s nuclear safety. Although Pakistan maintains tight secrecy on its nuclear program, some details are known and some presumptions can be made based on available information.

Pakistan’s record on the nuclear proliferation front is worrisome. U.S. officials stated Monday that Pakistani nuclear experts appear to have supplied Libya with its centrifuge design technology. Most disconcerting is the timing of these transfers, which apparently took place after September 11, while Mr. Musharraf was in charge of Pakistan, both politically and militarily, and after he had pledged to stop proliferation. Since these transfers involved intellectual property and not hardware, it is entirely plausible that Mr. Musharraf wasn’t aware of them. Still, as head of state and of the military, Mr. Musharraf is responsible for maintaining nuclear security.

The transfers to Libya demonstrate that measures Mr. Musharraf has taken to safeguard against proliferation — such as removing in August 2001 Abdul Qadeer Khan, the head of Khan Research Laboratories, from his post — have been insufficient. As U.S. officials are well aware, aggressive action, such as trying Mr. Khan (apparently Pakistan’s lead proliferator) would be profoundly unpopular and potentially destabilizing, since Pakistan’s nuclear scientists are regarded as national heroes. But Pakistan, in conjunction with the United States, must do whatever is necessary to prevent future transfers — presuming a plan hasn’t already been put in place.

The United States can also play a key role in helping Pakistan secure its nuclear capability against theft and accidental launch. Any such assistance must include India as well, since India also needs help in bolstering security. More importantly, including India would help to neutralize the political fallout of U.S. assistance to Pakistan. Such a regional approach would also help build confidence in Islamabad and New Delhi in mutual nuclear security.

Such U.S. security assistance is believed to have been offered to Islamabad, but not yet accepted in any meaningful way. Recent developments highlight the need for greater nuclear security in Pakistan, but the situation isn’t quite as dire as some contend. Pakistan is currently believed to have between 30 to 50 nuclear warheads. Based on its nuclear tests in 1999, the range of its nuclear arsenal is about 1,250 miles.

Pakistan is widely believed to store its nuclear arsenal disassembled and with various components in different locations in the country. These nuclear sites are believed to be in Pakistan’s relatively stable Punjab province, far removed from the more volatile border with Afghanistan. Complete knowledge of Pakistan’s various nuclear sites is believed to be limited to very few individuals. Thanks to Mr. Musharraf’s efforts, the top rungs of Pakistan’s military and intelligence community are widely believed to be solidly moderate and responsible. Furthermore, an elite and presumably trustworthy corps of commandos guard nuclear sites.

This low-tech approach is fairly reliable in times of stability, but is vulnerable in times of crisis, when Pakistan would presumably keep its nuclear weapons ready to deploy. When tensions between Pakistan and India ran particularly high in December 2001, Pakistan kept its nuclear weapons assembled and ready to launch, according to U.S. intelligence. A replay of such a face-off could then present rogue elements with an opportunity for theft or worse. Also, both Pakistan and India lack sophisticated early-warning systems, which makes both countries susceptible to accidental launch in the face of faulty intelligence or the mistaken appearance of an attack. The recent and ongoing progress between Pakistan and India to build trust and reduce tensions is therefore especially welcome.

But this progress should not substitute for more sophisticated nuclear safeguards. Here, the United States could take a leading role in working with both Pakistan and India. If Pakistan’s weapons system is based on the Chinese model, as is widely believed, then Pakistan probably lacks technological barriers to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized use. U.S. officials could help both Pakistan and India establish electronic locks on weapons (which would make a stolen device useless) and provide sensors, alarms, tamper-indicating seals, armored rail cars and polygraph testing of nuclear security personnel.

America’s role in promoting peace between India and Pakistan is yielding impressive results. U.S. assistance in establishing nuclear safeguards is just as critical, and would represent a sizable foreign-policy coup for the administration. Equally important, though, is deciding what to do about Mr. Khan and his associates — an endeavor that promises to be contentious.

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