October was one of the worst months for Pakistan. It suffered from a series of highly destructive terrorist attacks. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders Hakimullah Mehsud delivered on his vow to hit even harder if the Pakistani government did not pull out of its co-operation with the USA in the war against terror, and stop the bombing of tribal areas by US drones. Periodically, the Pakistani political leaders have publicly protested against US strikes inside Pakistani territory. But like everybody else, the terrorists or militants or jihadis or whatever one chooses to call them, know that Islamabad is in bed with the Americans and cannot get out of it. The tribal militants have been joined by the Punjabi TTP, many of whom were created by the Pakistani intelligence to wage jihad against India. The concern, however, is that the terror attacks have increasingly targeted the country’s intelligence and military establishments including the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi. This was further accentuated by an attempt on the Sargoda aeronautical complex last month. It is not clear if Sargoda is also a nuclear weapons storage facility, but the mountains behind the Sargoda complex reportedly have silos where nuclear warheads are stored as a back up to the main weapons deployment centers. Sargoda was, of course, a base for the Chinese supplied M-II nuclear capable missiles with a range of 290 kms., but the range is extendable. Given everything, the attempted attack on the base which was stopped by security personnel, is a very important marker on intentions and growing capability of the terrorist to penetrate, highly secured targets. This is almost an impossible task unless the terrorists have inside knowledge and some co-operation.
The issue of a possible terrorist attack on Pakistani nuclear assets become acute because of China’s worries. Last month, the Chinese Ministry of Health issued a directive for all local governments to step up preparation to face nuclear emergencies because of the rising number of nuclear facilities in neighbouring countries, and “the threat of global terrorism is a reality”. The directive went on to explain some countries have “also intensified the use and development of nuclear power at the Chinese border. If a nuclear or radioactive incident breaks out” health of the Chinese people and China’s economic development and social stability would be at stake. The Hong Kong newspaper The South China Morning Post (October 21, 2009) carried this report and no denial has come from the Chinese authorities. The Health Ministry’s edict did not name any particular country and also mentioned the vulnerability of its own nuclear power plants which are no longer under strict military control because of China-foreign collaboration. It has its own problems with militant separatists. It is not difficult to guess where China’s concerns lie. There are three countries with growing nuclear developments surrounding China – India, North Korea and Pakistan. India has no nuclear assets near China’s borders. Problems can happen with North Korea if only US attacks its nuclear assets, which is a remote possibility. That leaves only Pakistan, which has nuclear capabilities close to China’s borders. According to Chinese assessments, in case of a India-Pakistan nuclear war the wind direction in the area of conflict was such the radioactive fallout would be swept into China.
China is in an eminent position to understand the situation in Pakistan. They not only set up Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability, but were also closely involved in setting up their storage capability. In fact, reports have said China procured tunnelling machinery from Europe for making the silos in the Sargoda hills. China was also closely involved in setting up the security structure of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. And both these countries have ongoing collaboration and consultations in the nuclear weapons and power areas. Beijing would have suitably alerted their Pakistani friends. It must be noted that the Chinese Health Ministry edict clearly mentioned “threat of global terrorism” to nuclear facilities is a reality. It has also deep knowledge about terrorist organizations in Pakistan, having suffered at their hands. China also is emerging on the radar screen of terrorists after its brutal crackdown of Muslim Uighur protestors in July, this year. Since “9/11”, the US has also found itself a role in the security of Pakistani nuclear assets. It gives a $100 million a year aid to Pakistan for this purpose apart from consultancy. But it is unclear how much on the ground presence they have. Most of the times US official statements appear to depend on Pakistan’s assurances on the security of the nuclear assets, though they have independent appreciation of the situation. Informed think tanks and media remain sceptical about these assurances. No real discussions have emerged on the possibility of “9/11” air attack on these facilities. All these facilities have the regular security of anti-aircraft guns and missiles. Will that prevent determined terrorist.
During US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s somewhat stressful and strained visit to Pakistan last week, it was for the first time an US official of her stature publicly insinuated that some Pakistani officials would know the whereabouts of Taliban Chief Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda head Ossama bin Laden. Ms. Clinton’s assertions were not based on rumours. The US has given Pakistan hard evidence including communication intercepts on the live nexus between officials in the ISI and the terrorists. It is well known that Pakistan’s rouge nuclear scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan and some of his colleagues had relations with Mullah Omar and Ossama. Unless these people are interrogated by an international panel it would be difficult to unravel the depth of penetration the terrorists have achieved in Pakistan’s nuclear establishment. It is, therefore, surprising the Americans have not pressured Pakistan for access to A.Q. Khan. In the last fortnight two notable incidents took place. One was the arrest of a young Pakistani nuclear physicist in Islamabad who was associated with the banned organization, Hizb-ut-Tehrir. This Pan-Islamic Organization pursues the dream of an Islamic caliphate. The other was the arrest of a French nuclear scientist of North African origin working with Herdon accelerator, who was in touch with the Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Al Qaeda associate. These discoveries are dots in a graph to be joined by the Islamic international movement of Ossama bin Laden. Getting access to a nuclear weapon threatens the world. An attack on a nuclear facility to release nuclear radiation is no less a danger. The Chinese warning needs to be taken more seriously than it has been till now.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New delhi.Email:email@example.com)