The daring commando style raid into a Pakistani naval base at Karachi on May 22 by terrorists of the Pakistani Taliban has highlighted once again the poor state of physical security at sensitive infrastructure in Pakistan and the undetected infiltration by extremist elements into the Pakistani Armed Forces.
Since the Pakistani Taliban came into existence in July 2007 , it has organized a number of such raids into the establishments of the armed forces including into the General Headquarters, the sanctum sanctorum of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi. The success of these raids was made possible by the suspected help of insiders, who collaborated with the terrorists, and by the poor state of physical security.
The fact that such raids continue to take place and that the security forces and the intelligence agencies continue to be taken by surprise would add to the concerns of the international community regarding the state of physical security in Pakistan’s nuclear establishments and the dangers of the presence inside them of sympathisers who might collaborate with organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) in facilitating an act of terrorism involving the use of nuclear material seized from such establishments.
There are three possible dangers needing attention. The first is terrorists and their sympathizers wittingly or unwittingly causing radioactive leakages by raiding such establishments and damaging the production process. The second is the terrorists getting hold of easy-to-use nuclear material such as dirty bombs from ill-guarded establishments. The third is the leakage of the technology to terrorists from sympathetic scientists.
To prevent such dangers one requires an effective process for the continuous identification and weeding out of suspicious elements from nuclear establishments, a capability for the collection of human and technical intelligence regarding planned raids into such establishments and a physical security system with multi-layer security that could prevent attacks effectively even in the absence of preventive intelligence.
Repeated physical security breaches in sensitive infrastructure in Pakistan are due not only to poor preventive intelligence, but also to a single-layer security which was not able to stand up to a determined attempt to breach the security.
The Pakistanis claim that such breaches are unlikely in the case of nuclear establishments where, according to them, there is a multi-layer security and there is a constant vetting of the personnel to detect attempts at infiltration. Moreover, according to them, their nuclear arsenal is not kept in a ready-to-use form in one place, but in dismantled parts in a number of places. Thus, to be able to get at a nuclear weapon, the terrorists should be able to raid successfully at more than one place simultaneously, which would be difficult.
The serious failures of intelligence and security at Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden had been living undetected for over five years underlined the dangers of totally depending on Pakistani verbal assurances with regard to security against any kind of terrorism. Unadmitted incompetence and complicity at different levels with terrorists reduce the value and dependability of such Pakistani assurances.
The rest of the world would be as much affected as Pakistan by any breach of the physical security of Pakistan’s nuclear establishments. It is, therefore, important that the international community should not remain satisfied with Pakistan’s oral assurances alone. There has to be a close and continuous interaction between the intelligence and security agencies of Pakistan and those of the US and other NATO countries for ensuring that the security of nuclear establishments in Pakistan cannot be breached.
This means the association of the agencies of these countries in the planning and implementation of security measures in the nuclear establishments. It is believed that US experts in nuclear security already play a discreet, but important role in this matter. Is their role adequate to ensure that what happened in the Karachi naval base cannot happen in a nuclear establishment?
Only the US, which is more knowledgeable than any other country in matters relating to nuclear security in Pakistan, will be in a position to answer this question. India, which has an adversarial relationship with Pakistan, cannot expect to play a role in this matter. But through close interaction with the US agencies, it should be able to reassure itself that whatever needs to be done is being done by the US with the co-operation of Pakistan.
India can play a useful role in helping the US in this matter by strengthening its capability for the collection of human and technical intelligence regarding likely threats to Pakistan’s nuclear establishments and arsenal and sharing it with the US.
There is little scope for a stand-alone Indian role with regard to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, but discreet co-operation between India and the US can add value to the efforts being made by the US.
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi )