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Pakistani nukes may end up in jihadi hands

Ever since a crestfallen Dr A.Q. Khan admitted sheepishly on PTV that he had masterminded the sale of nuclear designs and materials to other...

Written by Gurmeet Kanwal |
February 24, 2004

Ever since a crestfallen Dr A.Q. Khan admitted sheepishly on PTV that he had masterminded the sale of nuclear designs and materials to other countries, there has been a tirade of articles and letters to the editor berating Pakistan for nuclear proliferation. However, no real analysis has emerged about the implications for India, particularly of the likelihood of Pakistani nuclear warheads falling into jihadi hands.

General Mirza Aslam Beg’s loud protestations notwithstanding, Indian as well as Western analysts have for long been convinced that the Pakistan army has a stranglehold over the country’s nuclear weapons programme, much like it has over Pakistan’s polity. Could Pakistan air force (PAF) planes loaded with nuclear materials have taken off for undisclosed destinations without the express approval of the Pakistan army chief? And where was the CIA? Surely, the agency was not oblivious to the flight plans of PAF aircraft that often touched base in North Korea and Libya and then flew on to Timbuktu. Or, did they think that the PAF was ferrying mineral water from Murree?

If the US chose to wink at these nefarious activities over several decades, that is its problem but Indian analysts will draw their own conclusions. During the Kargil conflict the Pakistan army sent its regular soldiers in civilian dress to intrude across the LoC into Kashmir to support its charade that they were mujahideen and then for several weeks refused to take their dead bodies back. Now it has emerged as the world’s leading nuclear proliferator. It also has evident links with Islamist fundamentalist jihadis to whom it self-confessedly provides “moral, political and diplomatic” support. It is an army that will not stop at anything to achieve its desired goals. What will it do next? When it comes to a crunch, will it stop short of handing over a nuclear warhead to the Islamist jihadis to perpetrate the ultimate act of terrorism?

Ever since Pakistan’s tit-for-tat nuclear explosions at Chagai in May 1998, there has been widespread apprehension that its nuclear warheads may fall into jihadi hands. Such anxieties are completely misplaced. Despite its roguish agenda, the Pakistan army is a very professional army. It would have established a foolproof storage system with adequate checks and balances for its nuclear assets. In any case the warheads are unlikely to be stored in assembled condition in a single location, so that even if rogue elements with fundamentalist leanings within the army decide to steal some components and pass them on to the jihadis, they will only get a part of the warhead.

Make no mistake: if ever the Pakistani jihadis come into possession of a nuclear warhead, it will have been handed over formally by the Pakistan army on the direct orders of its chief — and the army will have a receipt for it.

The writer is a senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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