Nuclear Safety in Pakistan

Bolstering nuclear safety By Farah Zahra
The News, October 25, 2007

The "creeping Talibanization of Pakistan" is a revolting phrase. It is used for the Karachi blasts, Waziristan, Lal Masjid, rising Talibanization in Pakistan's seven tribal agencies and more. The origins and the blame may be relatively less important than the realization of its full impact within Pakistan. Candid admission for political mileage alone seems to prove inadequate on all fronts. Interestingly enough a simultaneous case is made that though there is a creeping Talibanization of Pakistan, this 'creeping' never reaches nuclear weapons. Such 'creeping' is chlorinated and sanitized, without fail, as soon as it reaches the precincts of the nuclear set up.

So far, this may have worked. However, instituting further measures that bolster nuclear safety and security for the long term can only be beneficial. This may also assuage the fears of those who refuse to believe the argument of selective 'creeping Talibanization' of Pakistan.

Here is a sample of apprehensions expressed on a regular basis, with a divergence of opinion on how much is fact and fiction: "creeping Talibanization is a reality across the length and breadth of one of the world's eight nuclear-weapons powers. Outside of the ISI, no one knows about Musharraf's Jekyll-and-Hyde national security policy…To understand Pakistan, the intelligence community needs "anticipatory intelligence," not the actionable kind. Because when something is actionable in Pakistan, it's usually too late".

There are three issues which need to be addressed with a fine comb within the nuclear set up. These are tight coupling, decentralization, and rationality. Nuclear history of the world reveals two lessons. Firstly, that as a crisis escalates in the presence of nuclear weapons, the command and control automatically tends to get decentralized. Secondly, that as the crisis escalates rules and regulations are successively broken – both deliberately and inadvertently. Though the chances of a nuclear war (deliberate or accidental) with India may not be high, these three issues still remain relevant with regards to the custody and guardianship of nuclear weapons. These issues are relevant to an accidental launch of nuclear weapons in a time of crisis (vis a vis India) as well as the theft and control of nuclear weapons by non-state actors. The gravest part being that it is difficult to address many aspects of these issues unless there is some reciprocity by India.

'Rationality' (Talibanization antonym) is the requirement that the decision-maker or commander in charge of the nuclear forces (a multiplicity of actors in a more decentralized system) should have the soundest judgment based on basically two factors. Firstly, the decision-maker(s) should have the best psychological and mental fitness in synchronization with national interest and security, and secondly, that the leadership should have the soundest ability to interpret and analyze data and events and arrive at an autonomous decision in the shortest span of time. The allegation above which talks about "anticipatory intelligence", by implication, means that the 'Taliban' (or 'creeping Talibanization of Pakistan') intelligence has been faster than the state intelligence to be able to go ahead with the list of events (above) that in fact illustrates that there is indeed this alleged 'creeping'.

The 'risk' on the other hand, could be the result of a purposeful decision by an actor – yet it could be a combination of the three issues of tight-coupling, decentralization and rationality. Highly sensitive and complex systems are neither easy to design nor the faults within them easy to resolve. This largely implies that the 'risk' is inherent and inevitable and has limited ability to be consciously mitigated.

Firstly, given the political terrain and the structure of the National Command Authority it may be prone to more influence by the military. The issues were experienced in the United States where the civil-military relations are clearly delineated and the ultimate command and control lies with the civilians. Several of these issues could have culminated into something grave. Secondly, that in such type of situations it is almost a routine to indulge in organizational cover-ups. For instance, the SAC (Strategic Air Command in the US) was perceived to have a strong culture and discipline, thus, it was mandatory to protect that reputation and hence the cover-ups to avoid any questioning of the safety of something as serious as nuclear weapons.

Therefore, it has been pointed out that the size of the arsenal maybe of secondary importance and the 'structure' of the arsenal is more relevant with regards to nuclear risks. According to experts, decentralized system with a complex system of procedural checks and mechanical safety devices was evolved to reduce the risk of unauthorized nuclear use or inappropriate lower-level decisions during the Cold War. Permissive Action Links (PALs) locking devices were important and then the Personnel Reliability Programme (PRP) and other practices also evolved.

It might be worthwhile exploring the idea of a vigorous and more independent review of nuclear operations and safety which can be instituted by an independent institution created within the country -- an improved version of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority). Such an institution can be run by both the civilians and the military, to review and monitor critical operational aspects of nuclear safety. Maybe at some stage this can evolve into a 'risk reduction centre' for Pakistan with a counterpart in India.

In the short term however, the United States needs to be convinced that it should go further than merely flirting with the idea of giving Pakistan technology used in bomb safety that will keep 'bombs from going off when they are in the wrong hands'. These intelligent bombs have an advanced version of the PALs technology that is being developed. The PALs are a particular sequence of signatures punched into the system, which are required for activation of the weapon device. The advanced system would also ensure that nobody would be able to disable them. Secondly, the US should also share with Pakistan, its 'best practices' in terms of nuclear safety and security. These are 'practices' (e.g Personnel Reliability screening) that Pakistan already has in place, but can learn more from and improve upon many of these 'practices' that need to be implemented for nuclear safety and security.

The US is a protagonist in the way the 'war on terror' unfolds in this region and a major stakeholder in the outcome of this war with serious concerns about nuclear safety and security in Pakistan. It may be time to move beyond mere fears and disbelief of selective 'creeping Talibanization' of Pakistan -- onto bolstering nuclear security. While Pakistan can institute its own internal reviews and improvements there is ample justification for the United States to share the 'intelligent' bombs technology (without the bombs) and its 'best practices' for nuclear safety and security.

A leading American scholar on nuclear safety, Scott Sagan, has aptly pointed out that the "risk of a serious nuclear weapons accident on any given day may be extremely low. In the long run, however, unless something is done to change the current situation, the likelihood of a serious nuclear weapons accident is extremely high".

The writer is a defence analyst and a former research fellow at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Email:


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