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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 61, October - November 2001

News Review

Concern over Pakistan Nuclear Weapons

High levels of concern have been expressed about the possible impact of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan on Pakistan's nuclear weapons and nuclear infrastructure. The concern is threefold: that facilities may be attacked or weapons and equipment stolen; that the Musharraf regime may fall and be replaced by an extreme Islamicist government with access to weapons of mass destruction; and that there may be links between Pakistani nuclear weapons scientists and the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist network.

General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military leader, has offered many reassurances to the international community that there are no legitimate grounds for concern. Musharraf told the General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly on November 10: "Pakistan is fully alive to the responsibilities of its nuclear status. Let me assure you that all our strategic assets are well-guarded and in safe hands." The US has also expressed confidence in the competence of the Musharraf government's handling of nuclear security issues. On November 5, speaking in New Delhi alongside Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was almost blasé in his assessment: "I think that countries that have nuclear weapons have a healthy respect for the power and lethality of those weapons and the dangers they pose to the world, and take the appropriate steps to ensure that they are managed and handled in a way that reflects the dangers that those weapons pose." However, the day before, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar confirmed speculation that the US had now "offered us...support...to train Pakistanis in America on the safeguarding of nuclear installations." Asked if the offer had been accepted, the Foreign Minister wondered: "who would refuse?" Earlier (November 1), Sattar had expressed his glowing satisfaction with existing procedures: "Pakistan has an impeccable record of custodial safety and security, free of any incident of theft or leakage of nuclear material, equipment or technology... Any apprehension that the assets might fall into the hands of the extremists is entirely imaginary... A Strategic Force Command has been established for each of the three armed services. Clear chains of responsibility have been prescribed and enforced to ensure that strategic weapons cannot be deployed without due authorisation. Stringent measures have been enforced to minimise risks of accidental, unintentional or unauthorised launch."

On November 1, US Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters: "I discussed this issue with President Musharraf when I was in Islamabad, and I'm confident that he understands the importance of ensuring that elements of the nuclear programme are safe and secure. And he knows that if he needs any technical assistance on how to improve that security level, we'd be more than happy to help in any way we can."

The extent of US concern was suggested by remarks from an unnamed senior official, widely quoted on October 4, three days before the start of the military campaign: "There's a lot of work going on at the moment, lots of meetings...about how we should handle this [issue of the Pakistani arsenal]... We're concerned about it. Lots of our consultations on the Hill lead me to believe Congress is concerned about it as well..."

US involvement in helping to oversee, in whatever capacity, Pakistan's nuclear programme and infrastructure is a highly sensitive issue in the country. Speaking at an anti-war rally in Karachi on October 5, Muhammad Abbas Qadri, the leader of the Sunni Tehreek religious party, stated: "The US intrusion in the region is a conspiracy to destroy Pakistan's nuclear capability." On October 24, Musharraf insisted: "By the grace of Almighty Allah, there is no question of any compromise on the nuclear programme."

On November 10, the Washington Post reported that Musharraf had ordered an "emergency redeployment of the country's nuclear arsenal to at least six new locations and has reorganised military oversight of the nuclear forces".

In late October and early November, Pakistani officials detained and questioned two former nuclear weapons scientists - Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mehmood and Abdul Majid, senior officials at the Atomic Energy Commission until 1998 - known to have had direct contacts with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar. The men insist they were in Afghanistan as part of charitable aid and reconstruction efforts. No charges were laid.

On November 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed a general concern about such possible links: "We know about bin Laden's links with certain radical circles in Pakistan, and Pakistan is a nuclear power."

On October 26, The Times reported that bin Laden's network in Afghanistan may have been supplied with nuclear materials from Pakistan. According to intelligence sources referred to in the report, there was no evidence that any nuclear device had been acquired or assembled. The story was scornfully dismissed by Pakistani officials.

Reports: US mulls securing Pakistan nuclear arms, Reuters, October 4; US out to destroy Pakistan's nuclear capability - religious leaders, News International, October 5; No compromise on N-Plan - Musharraf, News International, October 24; Bin Laden's nuclear threat, The Times, October 26; Pakistan scoffs at bin Laden nuclear link, Reuters, October 26; Pakistan atom experts held amid fears of leaked secrets, New York Times, November 1; Pakistan says nuclear assets ironclad, Associated Press, November 1; US offers to advise Pakistan on nukes, Associated Press, November 3; Pakistan releases 2 nuke scientists, Associated Press, November 3; US wants to eye Pakistan nukes, Associated Press, November 4; Transcript - US, Indian defense chiefs discuss military linkages, Washington File, November 5; Russia's Putin doubts bin Laden has nuclear bomb, Reuters, November 10; Scientists say they met bin Laden, Associated Press, November 11; Pakistan moves nuclear weapons, Washington Post, November 11; Pakistan frees nuclear scientists, Associated Press, November 22.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.