After the launch of Pakistan's much 'encouraged' operation in South Waziristan, the international media is unusually quiet about Pakistan's efforts to combat terrorism. However, from time to time the international media continues to turn its attention to the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is not safe.
But neither are the US, British, French, Russian, Indian or Chinese arsenals. The arsenals are maintained, operated and protected by humans. Humans are fallible.
Based on admissions by the US Department of Defense at least 32 nuclear accidents occurred between 1950 and 1980. No data has been released by the US since 1980.
Among the nuclear accidents acknowledged by the US government is the following:
In January 1984, Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, recorded a message that one of its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles was about to launch from its silo due to a computer malfunction. To prevent the possible launch, an armoured car was parked on top of the silo [emphasis added].
Does this sound like a secure arsenal?
It is worth restating the reason for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It acts as a bulwark against a perceived desire by India to achieve regional hegemony in South Asia.
Historically, nuclear deterrence is a legitimate strategy to protect the international boundary of a member state of the United Nations. It was part of NATO doctrine to keep Western Europe safe from the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe. NATO's war tactics called for a vertical escalation to nuclear weapons as a counter to the Soviet numerical superiority in conventional weapons.
As a deterrent, there are several scenarios during which Pakistan may 'legitimately' threaten to use, or indeed use, nuclear weapons. Consider the following sequence of events.
A series of coordinated terrorist incidents across five major Indian cities, including Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Bangalore results in the deaths of almost 1,000 people. Nationalist hawks pressure the incumbent Indian government to take 'limited military' action against Pakistan.
During these actions, an Indian air force fighter is shot down while on a 'precision strike' mission against a 'terrorist' training camp in Pakistan. Separately, a squad of Indian commandoes are captured while trying to infiltrate Pakistani Kashmir.
Islamist terror cells indulge in another wave of operations across India. Separatist movements, encouraged by the Indian government focus on the western border, step up operations in Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, and Mizoram (to name a few states).
Suddenly, a Baloch tribal leader emerges at a press conference organized by the Indian foreign ministry in Delhi. He demands independence from Pakistan (and Iran) for Balochistan.
Simultaneously, an Indian Sikh leader surfaces in Lahore. He demands the establishment of an independent Khalistan state in Indian Punjab and urges Sikhs to rebel against Delhi's authority. He appeals for Sikhs, including those in the Indian military, to remain neutral in the Indo-Pak conflict.
Since World War I (1914-18) no nation has overtly declared war on its adversary. Wars just ensue after a series of unfortunate events.
And so it is on the Pakistan-India border. Suddenly the two armies are shooting bullets and lobbing artillery shells at each other. Air force planes are vying for supremacy over Amritsar and Rajasthan.
After approximately two weeks, the mobilization of additional Indian land forces confers India a numerical edge. After three weeks the Pakistani military feels severe pressure in the Lahore / Amritsar sector. The Pakistan military fear the tide may be turning against them.
At a specially convened session of the UN Security Council, Pakistan calls for an immediate ceasefire. The Pakistani foreign minister threatens India with a first strike unless India declares an unconditional ceasefire within twenty four hours.
Hopefully, the world will never be faced with a situation similar to the one described above. However, that is not what worries the world these days. The international community is simply interested in keeping Pakistan's nuclear arsenal out of the hands of the 'Islamists.'
Are Pakistan's nuclear assets safe from the Taliban? All indications suggest they are – for now. Will they stay safe from Islamic extremists in the future?
The only certainties in life are death and taxes. And, as the Americans say, stuff happens.
The impact on the Muslim psyche of incidents such as the Danish cartoons, the continued rebuff to Turkey's admission to the European Union, military impotence in face of 'invasions' of Iraq and Afghanistan and, of course, the lingering Arab-Israeli dispute is deep.
The reality is that Pakistan is a Muslim nation. The nuclear weapons are already in the hands of Muslims. Therefore, the more important question is whether the Pakistani state and military will feel compelled to use the nuclear weapons against perceived enemies of the state, for religious or nationalistic reasons.
The answer will be found in whether there is a 'clash of civilizations' between Islam and other parts of the world. If the Islamic world feels strongly alienated from the mainstream international community then the Pakistani military will not remain immune forever to increasing anti-US and anti-Western sentiment.
It is unlikely Pakistan will become a Saudi type theocratic state following a top-down revolution (like Iran after the fall of the Shah). It is far more likely that popular religiosity in Pakistan will increase as a result of perceived slights against Pakistan and Islam, a bottom-up 'Peoples Revolution.'
The result: Gulf Arab petrodollars, especially from Saudi Arabia, rush into Pakistan in amounts larger than is already the case. Pakistan's reliance on the US and the West is weakened. Pakistan becomes a 'client state' of Saudi Arabia and radical Islam.
The 'Islamic Bomb' is well and truly born.
There is only one way to ensure the 'security' of Pakistan's nuclear assets. The international community must reach a modus operandi with the Islamic world which ensures Pakistan and other Islamic nations feel a respected part of international community. Not merely nations which are potential threats or ongoing sources of terrorism.
Until the Islamic world perceives itself to be a partner with the rest of the world the dangers of radical Islam will only increase. All Muslims, including those who serve as officers in the Pakistan army, are susceptible to the crosscurrents of radicalization over time.
As for nuclear arsenals, in the coming few years we are more likely to read about US B-52 bombers carrying unauthorized nuclear missiles flying across the continental US (September 2007) than about Pakistani nukes falling into the wrong hands. And, if a nuclear weapon is used in the near future, current trends and history both suggest it will more likely be a tactical strike in a Muslim nation like Afghanistan carried out by the US!
"Millions of Americans believe that these are the last days and that they will be raptured to heaven at the end of the world. You have a president who describes Jesus as his favourite philosopher, and one of the last remaining candidates in your presidential primaries is a preacher who doesn't believe in evolution. Many Pakistanis worry that the United States is being taken over by religious extremists who believe that a nuclear holocaust will just put the true believers on a fast track to heaven. We worry about a nutcase U.S. president destroying the world to save it."
US Humorist Hugh Gusterson writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (February 4, 2008)