Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal and Its Islamic ExtremistsPeter Wonacott
Drawing on the US Personnel Reliability Program, officials now check applicants and personnel for characteristics that might make them more likely to betray their nation’s secrets. Religious fervor is among the ones most thoroughly searched for. Yet, striking the right balance between allowing faith and excluding fundamentalism, is proving to be very difficult. Especially in a time of political and social upheaval for this Muslim nation of 160 million people.
During the last few months, Pakistan has experienced an escalation in extremist violence, with an Islamist insurgency spreading from the lawless border area with Afghanistan to Pakistan’s major cities. This has sparked fears that those extremists could takeover control of the nuclear power’s arsenal.
However, many experts say it is unlikely that Islamist militants would be able to penetrate Pakistan’s nuclear establishment or to steal weapons, and see a bigger threat in a rising tide of young people inclined to be more religiously conservative and more anti-American. This includes the college campuses that are most likely to supply recruits to the nuclear program, thus gripping the programs very applicant pool.
In any event, the US has long had contingency plans in place under which it would secure nuclear-weapons sites in the event of an Islamic takeover. However, there is the worry among some US military and intelligence experts that there may be additional weapons sites that the US doesn’t know about.
Pakistan’s approximately 50 nuclear warheads are a direct result of an arms race with India to be the first to build a nuclear bomb, which culminated in 1998, when both countries conducted a series of quid pro quo nuclear tests. During that time Pakistan focused on acquiring technology, rather than safeguarding it, resulting in the current security problems.
These problems were aggravated by weak oversight by subsequent civilian governments. It appears as if only General Musharraf’s coup in 1999 improved official supervision. Thus, the General reformed the nuclear bureaucracy, created a National Security Council that was given full control over all nuclear laboratories, hence establishing more accountability.
In 2005 then, with much help from the US, Pakistan finally managed to implement a reliability program, borrowed from the US, but adapted to Pakistani requirements.
Under the system, recruits are subject to a series of background checks that can take up to a year. New employees are monitored for months before moving into sensitive areas. They may also be subjected to periodic psychological exams and reports from fellow workers. A few top officials and scientists linked to the program are under close surveillance, their phones being tapped and their every move followed. Sometimes, even retired and former workers may still be monitored by security agents.Related Material on Atlantic Community:
- Frédéric Grare on Time to Put Pressure on Pakistan
- Julianne Smith and Alexander T.J. Lennon on Climate Change Increases the Risk of Terrorism
- Alexander Bernhard Bitter on Europe and Missile Defense: A Risky Nap
The summary above was prepared by Benjamin Schoo of the Atlantic Community editorial team from Inside Pakistan’s Drive To Guard Its A-Bombs published in the Wall Street Jounal