Peter Bergen in Foreign Policy:
A subset of the question how stable Pakistan is is the question of how secure are its nuclear weapons. By far the best-informed and well-calibrated response (pdf) I have yet seen to this question can be found in the July issue of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center’s indispensible online monthly The Sentinel.
Shaun Gregory, a professor at Bradford University in the UK, acknowledges the great strides the Pakistanis have made in securing their weapons (with some US help he doesn’t mention) but he also points out something that was news to me (and shouldn’t have been) which is that a series of attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities have already happened. According to Gregory, “These have included an attack on the nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha on November 1, 2007, an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra by a suicide bomber on December 10, 2007, and perhaps most significantly the August 20, 2008 attack when Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers blew up several entry points to one of the armament complexes at the Wah cantonment, considered one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites.”
The Lede Blog at NYT:
At a news conference on Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, was asked about Mr. Gregory’s article and reminded reporters that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have repeatedly said that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure. Mr. Morrell said:
I can just repeat what you’ve heard time and time again from Chairman Mullen and from Secretary Gates, that they are comfortable with the security measures the Pakistani government, the Pakistani military have in place to ensure that their nuclear arsenal is safeguarded.
Even if these attacks were not launched to help militants seize nuclear material, Mr. Gregory’s article does underscore that Pakistan’s nuclear sites do tend to be located in uncomfortable proximity to the part of the country Islamists now control.
Shaun Gregory, whose article is discussed above, responded to a note from The Lede after this post was published. Mr. Gregory said that he fears that his words “have been misrepresented in some quarters” and made it clear that he did not mean that the attacks themselves were on the nuclear weapons or weapons components but on bases known to have nuclear weapons or a role in the nuclear program.
He wishes to make clear that he was not arguing that the Islamist militants had made it inside the bases, or that they were specifically targeting the nuclear materials. He told The Lede that he had hoped to convey the notion encapsulated by the phrase “the barbarians are at the gate,” to echo, he said, the Roman idea of a threat outside a citadel.
He stressed that his point was that Islamist militants had reached the gates of bases believed to hosue some parts of in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and had the potential in the future to conduct different type of operations, using the combination a suicide bomb attacks and ground combatants — as, he notes, the militants have done in other parts of the country — to either seek to destroy or gain access to nuclear weapons or components.
Declan Walsh at The Guardian:
A military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, said Gregory’s claims were “factually incorrect” and part of a western propaganda campaign to “malign Pakistan and its nuclear facilities”.
The bases at Wah, Sargodha and Kamra were used to manufacture conventional weapons, ammunition and fighters jet, he said. “There are military facilities, not nuclear installations.”
The suicide attacks were widely reported when they occurred and generally were not linked to Pakistan’s secretive nuclear programme, which has an estimated 60 to 100 warheads.
Gregory cited a US website, the Long War Journal, as the source for his claims, the most contentious of which surrounds the Wah complex. When it was bombed in August 2008, a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility, saying it was retaliation for army-inflicted civilian deaths in the tribal belt.
Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst who ran the factory for eight years in the 1980s, said the nuclear link was “absolute nonsense”.
Lisa Curtis at The Heritage Foundation:
Before jumping to conclusions that al-Qaeda is about to grab a Pakistan nuke, though, observers should note that the U.S. has been assisting Pakistan with improving the security of its nuclear assets since 9/11 and has spent some $100 million on programs to increase personnel reliability and to establish permissive action links on nuclear facilities. Second, even before 9/11, the Pakistan army had an interest in safeguarding its nuclear facilities and therefore almost certainly has dispersed its nuclear assets throughout the country, making it nearly impossible for terrorists to gain access to an assembled nuclear weapon, especially through a single violent attack.
A more plausible scenario is one in which extremists infiltrate the nuclear establishment slowly over time and gain access to nuclear materials or technology that could help them eventually build a nuclear device themselves or even a dirty bomb. The fact that elements of Pakistan’s army and intelligence service retain links to extremists who they view as strategic assets in pursuing goals vis a vis Afghanistan and India opens the door for the unwelcome possibility of Pakistani officials (with access to nuclear information) developing sympathy for al-Qaeda goals. Earlier revelations about a group of former Pakistani military officials and nuclear scientists who met with Osama bin Laden in August 2001 remind us of the very real possibility of al-Qaeda gaining nuclear know-how from former Pakistani officials with access to such information.
Vipin Narang in Foreign Policy:
So what are the primary risks to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?
In answering this question, it is important to differentiate between the various organizations involved with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and where and when nuclear assets are more or less vulnerable to internal and external threats. The bigger threat is probably not the Army losing control of nuclear assets, but rather insider-outsider collusion or diversion of nuclear material from the civilian nuclear agencies during either the production phase or transfer to Army locations.
The good news is that once the Pakistani Army takes custody of nuclear assets, the threat of terrorists successfully boosting a warhead or fissile cores — either through direct attack or facilitated by insiders — is reassuringly low. The Pakistani Army has every incentive to ensure firm control over the country’s nuclear assets since, should they be lost or stolen, there would literally be hell to pay.
Now, for the potentially bad news. As Gregory, Khan, and Mowatt-Larssen all suggest, the primary risk to the Pakistani Army’s ability to safely secure nuclear assets in its custody would likely be during crisis scenarios — either against India or due to a perceived Western threat to the integrity of Pakistan’s arsenal — that might cause Pakistan to move to a higher state of nuclear readiness. If the Army feels compelled to rapidly disperse or relocate nuclear components and loses the defensive advantage of protecting them in secure fixed locations, insider foreknowledge of movements and the loss of centralized control could increase the probability of theft or loss.
Shuja Nawaz in Foreign Policy:
Unfortunately, the message published on the AfPak Channel was picked up worldwide with the speed of a brush fire and its assumptions are not supported by the facts about these three attacks. None of them was aimed at getting into or seeking control of nuclear assets.
Bear in mind the following:
The facility at Wah is a massive ordnance complex that is known to manufacture conventional weapons. It may or may not have nuclear weapons facilities inside its enormous perimeter. Gregory does not offer any evidence on its nuclear activity. The attack of August 21, 2008, on one gate and another explosion in a bazaar near another gate of the Wah facility was acknowledged to the BBC by Pakistani Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar as retaliation for the deaths of “innocent women and children” in the tribal territory of Bajaur. No mention of any intent to penetrate or capture nukes.
The attack of November 1, 2007, on the Pakistan Air Force bus carrying trainees near Sargodha in Central Punjab also was not an attack on a nuclear facility or storage site. It was a lone suicide bomber on a motorcycle who crashed into the bus carrying the airmen. Security experts saw this as retaliation for the air force attacks the previous months in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan.
Again, one may assume that the Sargodha air base might be used for loading or launching airborne nuclear weapons. But there was no indication that this was an attack aimed at the Pakistani nuclear facilities or capabilities. Sargodha lies on the road often used by Sunni Punjabi militant groups traveling to the Afghan border region where they support the Pakistani Taliban, and sometimes al Qaeda, as franchisees. This may well have been their bloody handiwork against a target of opportunity. But there’s no evidence of any attack on nuclear facilities here either.
The third attack on Kamra in December 2007 again does not provide any evidence of a plan to penetrate the aeronautical complex where military and civilian aircraft and spare parts are manufactured. The target was a bus carrying more than 30 children of Air Force personnel on their way to a school inside the complex. At least five of them were injured. Kamra produces, among other things, parts for the Boeing 777. There is no evidence offered by Gregory of any nuclear work being conducted at Kamra.
The blogosphere has now picked up this story and no doubt it will become part of the hyperbolic record on Pakistan’s nuclear safeguards. Unless it is retracted or clarified by the source: Shaun Gregory.