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Analysis: The Status of Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons

Wednesday, 19 September 2001 12:00 AM

On Wednesday, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said in an internationally broadcast television address from Islamabad that: "In this situation if we make the wrong decisions it can be very bad for us."

"Our critical concerns are our sovereignty, second our economy, third our strategic assets (nuclear and missiles), and forth our Kashmir cause," he said. "All four will be harmed if we make the wrong decision. When we make these decisions they must be according to Islam."

Earlier, he said: "Our nuclear facilities would have been in jeopardy and the economy would be completely down the drain" if Pakistan had not cooperated with the United States in the fight against terrorism.

Credible defense sources such as Jane's Defense Weekly say Pakistan possesses between 15 to 25 strategic nuclear weapons, as well as about 60 short- and medium-range missiles to deliver the weapons and 34 F-16 aircraft capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Western experts have long expressed fears that Pakistan's nuclear weapons, as those of former Soviet republics of Central Asia, could get into the hands of terrorists and be smuggled to the West. Senior Pakistani officials have always rejected those fears as unfounded.

But maintaining safe control of the weapons is one concern as the United States seeks Pakistan's help in tracking down bin Laden.

So far Afghanistan's Taliban rulers have refused to hand over bin Laden or change their policy of giving refuge to Muslim fundamentalist radicals despite demands from the United States

Pakistan sent a six-member delegation to Afghanistan on Monday to convince the country's Taliban rulers to expel bin Laden, a man President Bush has said is "wanted dead or alive" for his alleged involvement in last week's terrorist attacks in which some 6,000 people were killed or missing. The team returned to Pakistan Wednesday with no definite answer from the Taliban.

Pakistan, which has so far maintained close links with the Taliban without breaking up its ties with the West, has now been forced to take sides. In a war against the Taliban it would find itself fighting against its former Afghan allies along with the international force that the United States is trying to put together.

For Pakistan, it would be an unpopular war. It shares with Afghanistan a 1,500-mile mountainous border, which is difficult to monitor even in peace. People living on both sides of the border belong to the same ethnic and religious groups and are often related to each other. Any political movement on one side often has followers on the other.

So the Taliban have many sympathizers on the Pakistani side of the border. According to Pakistan's Ministry for Religious Affairs there may be as many as 25,000 religious seminaries in Pakistan that have produced hundreds of thousands of Taliban, a word that means students and is used for those who go to 'madaris' or Muslim seminaries.

They are already out in the streets, protesting Musharraf's decision to cooperate with the Americans.

"Fear God, not America," says Sami ul-Haq, a prominent Muslim cleric who has taught hundreds of Talibs both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Urging Musharraf to dissociate Pakistan from a U.S.-led alliance against the Taliban, another fundamentalist leader, Kazi Hussain Ahmed, warned, "The army will be divided if you go along with the Americans. You will be fighting your own people."

So far it is only the fundamentalists who come to such protests. They represent a tiny minority and have never won more than 10 seats in a parliament of 217. But a war against Taliban can change that. Analysts say that a continued presence of U.S. or other Western troops in Pakistan cannot only win more sympathies for the fundamentalists but also create divisions within the Pakistan army.

The possibility of a division within Pakistan's 600,000-strong armed forces scares many, both in and outside Pakistan. Despite their opposition to military rule in Pakistan, many Western analysts see the army as the only unifying force in a country of 140 million people with more than a dozen ethnic and religious factions that are often fighting each other.

Pakistan is not only strategically important; it is also the only Muslim country to have nuclear weapons. Pakistan tested a nuclear device in May 1998 in response to similar tests by rival India.

Since then, both have been developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Senior Pakistani officials say their country's nuclear weapons are safeguarded.

"We have a credible command and control structure and our weapons are in safe hands," says Mirza Aslam Beg, a former chief of the Pakistan army.

Although experts like Rodney Jones, president of the U.S. think tank Policy Architect, have in the past pointed out "weaknesses in Pakistan's nuclear command, control and communication structure," others have trusted the army's capability of preventing these weapons from falling into wrong hands.

But what happens if the army is divided? Can nuclear weapons get into the hands of someone like bin Laden?

People like Beg rule out the possibility of a division within the army, which, they say, is one of the "most organized and trained in the region." They argue that there has never been a division within the army since 1947, when Pakistan separated from British India as an independent Muslim state.

"The army has ruled the country for more than half of its history, toppling elected but weak and divided civilian governments. But it has always remained loyal to its central command," says Rasheed Khalid, who teaches defense and strategic studies at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University.

"Aware of the responsibility that comes with possessing nuclear weapons, the army has created a command and control structure which is capable of dealing with any situation," says Khalid Rahman, a researcher at Islamabad's Institute for Policy Studies.

In February 2000, Pakistan formed a centralized structure called the National Command Authority as "a unified command and control mechanism for its nuclear weapons and missile systems," says an army spokesman. The NCA is responsible for "policy formulation, employment and development control over all strategic nuclear forces and strategic organizations," he said. Headed by the president, the NCA includes ministers for foreign affairs, defense and interior and chiefs of the army, air force and the navy and heads of strategic organizations responsible for nuclear and missile development.

On Nov. 27, 2000, Pakistan's military government "further consolidated its nuclear weapons management" by giving more control to Musharraf, who is both the president of the country and the commander-in-chief of the Pakistan army. While announcing the "consolidation," a government spokesman said it would reduce the chances of a mishap and "should assure everyone that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are in safe hands."

Such assurances seem to have positive impact on people like Rahman.

"The army has its own command and control system and can be trusted with the weapons," he said.

Pakistan also has a Strategic Force Command led by a serving army general responsible for the deployment of strategic missiles. Pakistan possesses two versions of a medium-range nuclear-capable missile called Ghauri. Its Shaheen-I and Shaheen-II missiles also belong to the same class.

The existing version of the Ghauri missile has a range of 800 to 1,200 miles; the ability to carry nuclear, biological and chemical warheads; and can be launched form land or air. It is equipped with an accurate guidance system.

Pakistan is also working on a new version of the Ghauri with a range of up to 1,800 miles.

Pakistan claims "having a unified command structure for its nuclear weapons and missiles places it in a better position than India."

"In India, the military and political branches of power are not linked together with regard to nuclear weapons. India's civilian government executes full control over design, research and production of nuclear weapons, while the Indian military is in charge of operational control over nuclear weapons," says a spokesman for Pakistan's military government.

But not everybody agrees with his assessment.

"Politicians, and not generals, should have the final say in a matter as sensitive as this," says A.H. Nayyar, an associate professor of physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University and an outspoken critic of Pakistan's nuclear program.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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On Wednesday, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said in an internationally broadcast television address from Islamabad that: In this situation if we make the wrong decisions it can be very bad for us. Our critical concerns are our sovereignty, second our economy, third...
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Wednesday, 19 September 2001 12:00 AM
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