As tensions mount over a confrontation with Afghanistan's Taleban authorities for their refusal to surrender alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden, new questions are being asked about the security of nuclear weapons in the region. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals. Some analysts say a protracted conflict in the region could have a destabilizing impact on nuclear security.
According to reports in American newspapers, U.S. military officials have recently held discussions with their Pakistani counterparts about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. For their part, senior Pakistani officials will not acknowledge that any talks concerning their nuclear arsenal have taken place. Riaz Mohammed Khan, the spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry says Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secure.
"Let me say with the greatest emphasis that I can muster on my part that our nuclear assets are secure," stressed Mr. Khan. "They are safe under multiple custody and there should be no reason for any concern whatsoever on the part of anybody on this account."
Pakistan is believed to possess enough fissionable material to construct about 30 nuclear bombs. Pakistan also has two nuclear power plants, one built with Canadian assistance and other with Chinese help. Security at both plants was reportedly increased following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is a professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University who has closely studied nuclear weapons programs in both Pakistan and India. According to him, at present there are good nuclear safeguards in both countries. "I should say at the present time, neither India nor Pakistan have put warheads onto their missiles and they are relying primarily on aircraft delivery," he said. "So one presumes that these different warheads are at different airbases spread throughout the two countries. In Pakistan one would presume that would be three to seven such airbases and they would be very closely guarded. Furthermore the cores of the nuclear weapons would be separated from the outer shells the high explosives and so there is certainly a separation of the two, which means they are not ready to go."
Professor Hoodbhoy says Pakistan's nuclear material is under the strict control of its military, led by the country's president, General Pervez Musharraf. According to him, there are no signs of any discontent within the armed forces over General Musharraf's decision to back the international coalition confronting the Taleban for its refusal to surrender alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden. However Professor Hoodbhoy says if the U.S. and its allies get involved in a protracted military conflict inside Afghanistan, fissures could develop within the military.
Mr. Hoodbhoy describes a worst-case scenario: "Now as long as the Pakistan Army remains united behind General Musharraf, there is unlikely to be a change in status, but events could make it otherwise," he said. "The nightmare scenario is that there is a fissure in the army. That means that some people who are in charge of the nuclear arsenal may decide that they are better put elsewhere or used elsewhere. And therefore, there is a possibility in the event of a split in the army which certainly at the present time does not look likely that the nuclear weapons may not be in the control of the Pakistani state."
Even before the current crisis in the region, tensions over nuclear weapons were high. Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars since independence 50 years ago, have both been reluctant to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans nuclear testing. Both countries are also developing long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Now, as some experts warn of military conflict in Afghanistan causing fissures within Pakistan's military, tensions over nuclear weapons in the region are once again on the rise.