NEW DELHI: A report prepared by the Congressional Research Service, titled “Pakistan Political Unrest” and presented to the United States Congress in connection with the ongoing anti-government protests in Islamabad, has concluded that political crisis will have no impact on the country’s nuclear realm.

“Any new erosion of the ability of Islamabad’s civilian leaders to oversee (or make) the country’s security policy likely will not affect the nuclear realm, which has long been assumed to be wholly ruled by the military,” the report noted.

The safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has long been a subject of policy debate, despite repeated efforts by international watchdogs to vouch for its safety.

Nor are these concerns new; they have persisted ever since the country conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” Report by the National Intelligence Council states, “Nuclear Powers .. such as Pakistan ..see nuclear weapons as compensation for other political and security weaknesses, heightening the risk of their use.” More significantly, the country’s instability and precarious relationship with violent militant groups is often highlighted as a cause for concern, with watchdogs cautioning the possibility of non-state actors acquiring nuclear weapons or a radical takeover placing safety and security concerns at risk. Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei expressed fears that a radical regime could take power in Pakistan, and thereby acquire nuclear weapons. Experts also worry that technology could be sold off by insiders during a worsened crisis.

These concerns are not unfounded. In 2004, nuclear scientist Dr AQ Khan confessed to the illicit transfer of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea and other countries. Additionally, according to reports, Al Qaeda unsuccessfully sought nuclear weapons assistance from Khan, but did receive help from at least one other group in Pakistan - possibly retired Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission scientists Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhuri Abdul Majeed. Although details are not clear, it is a known fact that the charity set up by the two scientists known as the Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (UTN) had links to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In 2012, a group of nine militants attacked the Kamra Air Base that had long been suspected of housing nuclear weapons. Although Pakistan has long denied this claim, the incident raised concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

In light of the above, how safe is Pakistan’s nuclear programme?

1. The Kamra Air Base attacks

Firstly, we do not know for certain that the air base housed nuclear weapons, but let’s assume that it did. The incident received widespread attention as it indicated that Pakistani militants had plans to acquire nuclear weapons, if not covertly through proliferation networks, then through armed theft. The nine attackers who targeted the air base probably had no intention of recovering any nuclear material or substantial military equipment; they were wearing suicide vests which is a clear indication that they did not plan to leave the base alive. Further, if they did plan to successfully recover weapons, they would have probably sent more than a nine-person team to a heavily guarded military base.

While risks and concerns remain given Pakistan’s instability and the proliferation of militancy in the country, weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors is unlikely. This confidence has been reiterated by many. US General Petraeus stated on May 10, 2009, that “[w]ith respect to the—the nuclear weapons and—and sites that are controlled by Pakistan … we have confidence in their security procedures and elements and believe that the security of those sites is adequate.” James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence in the US, told the House Intelligence Committee February 10, 2011, that “our assessment is that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure.”

Pakistan has reformed the institutions charged with the task of ensuring the safety of nuclear arsenal. The Pakistan government has reiterated that warheads are kept separate from detonation mechanisms and warhead cores separate from their firing mechanisms. Keeping the components separately limits the ability of non state actors to acquire a weapon and increases the number of materials required. Pakistan has also set up a permissive action link (PAL) system, where two members of the military and the most senior civilian leaders have codes that must be entered simultaneously to approve the use or deployment of nuclear weapons. The the security and safety of Pakistan’s nuclear forces rely on three institutions: The National Command Authority (NCA), the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). The final authorisation to employ a nuclear weapon must go through the head of the NSA - the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The Director General of the army is the secretariat for the NCA, and each branch of the military has its own SFC.

Risks and vulnerabilities do remain, but former President Musharraf has summed up the situation when he told the CNN in 2011 that “If Pakistan disintegrates, then it can be dangerous. Otherwise, if Pakistan’s integrity is there... there is no danger of the nuclear assets or strategic assets falling in any terrorist hands.”

2. Dr AQ Khan

Although AQ Khan’s admission of running a procurement network corroborates a worry well expressed by Yuri Korolev, a member of the Russian Foreign Ministry, who said, “There are 120,000-130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programmes… There is no way to guarantee that all are 100 [percent] loyal and reliable,” Pakistan’s improvements in safeguards demonstrate its commitment to addressing security concerns.

Firstly, the network set up by AQ Khan seems to have been dismantled, with a 2009 US State Department release saying that the network “is no longer operating.” Pakistan’s Foreign Office stated February 7, 2009, that Pakistan “has dismantled the nuclear black market network.”

Pakistan has also taken a number of steps to prevent further proliferation of nuclear-related technologies and materials. In 2004, a new national exports control legislation was adopted. This includes a control list for “goods, technologies, material, and equipment which may contribute to designing, development, stockpiling, [and] use” of nuclear weapons and a catch-all clause which requires exporters to notify the government if they are aware or suspect that goods or technology are intended by the end-user for use in nuclear or biological weapons, or missiles capable of delivering such weapons.

3. The Al Qaeda link

Once the UTN’s work with Al-Qaeda on biological weapons and rudimentary nuclear weapons technology came to light in 2001, Pakistan changed its personnel security policy. It developed a personnel reliability programme to scrutinise individuals working with nuclear weapons in the country and the 2007 National Command Authority Ordinance includes measures to prevent the transmission of nuclear expertise. Pakistani officials participating in an April 2007 Partnership for Global Security workshop argued that Islamabad had improved the reliability of its nuclear personnel by, for example, making security clearance procedures more stringent.

In conclusion, Pakistan is acutely aware of the threat to its nuclear programme posed by non-state actors, the political instability in the country, and even the risk of the escalation of hostilities with its neighbour, India. As stated by Shashindra Tyagi, former chief of staff of the Indian Air Force, “The Pakistani establishment understands the threats they face better than anyone, and they are smart enough to take care of it.”