Musharraf resignation: Nukes on the loose?

Musharraf's exit raises the prospect of Pakistan's notoriously leaky nuclear establishment becoming an engine of proliferation

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI

This article first appeared at (c)

The resignation of Pervez Musharraf poses questions, yet again, about the fate of a clandestine nuclear arsenal run by a state in crisis. Musharraf may justifiably have run out of road, but it is not clear that the political transition in Pakistan will reassure its neighbours, or the west, about the nuclear safety of the region. There will be some anxious months to come for the security services in Washington and London, not to mention Delhi.

It could be worse. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is generally reckoned to consist of up to 100 deployable warheads, though estimates vary. It is a fairly sophisticated arsenal mostly derived – despite some key Chinese help – from indigenous Pakistani technologies. It represents a considerable technological achievement; evidence that the force is also professional and under control. The command arrangements for nuclear release were all beefed up when Musharraf nailed his flag to the mast of America's "war on terror", and he received at least $100m in US aid for nuclear safety, within the $10bn military assistance packages he got in return from Washington. Pakistan's nuclear warheads are kept disassembled and away from their delivery vehicles. The force is claimed to be a "minimum credible deterrent" designed primarily to deter the use of Indian nuclear weapons.

But we do not know how robust these procedures will be when the relationship between the military and a new political authority in Islamabad is being redefined. The military will make reassuring constitutional noises about political authority and nuclear command procedures. But Delhi is convinced that the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence agency is still calling too many of Pakistan's strategic shots and is growing again in stature.

Explicit US influence on Musharraf was one of the causes of his political downfall and Islamabad will be anxious to distance itself from anything that looks like another client relationship with Washington. This, too, worries politicians in India. Both India and Pakistan approached war over Kashmir in 1999 and again in 2002 and rumours abounded both times that Pakistan's warheads were beginning to be "assembled". There will be even less the US can do to damp down such tensions in another crisis.

Most worrying of all though is the "loose nuke"' problem. Pakistan has been an active proliferator while building its impressive nuclear capability. The architect of that achievement, AQ Khan, was running a vast personal network of nuclear secrets to other countries – particularly Iran – for over 20 years before he was exposed in 2004. The Pakistani government was less than harsh with him and western intelligence agencies report that significant parts of his personal network are still operational.

A crisis of central authority in Islamabad would allow this sort of personal enterprise even more latitude. The north-western borders of the country are run by warlords and remain the home of the al-Qaida core organisation. Al-Qaida is known to have approached Pakistani scientists in the past for access to nuclear technologies. They may do so with more success in the future.

The US and its western allies may find ways of engaging with a more credible government in Islamabad that keeps Pakistan's nuclear forces under tight control and builds another period of detente with India. But even according to this optimistic scenario there will still be the problem that Pakistan's nuclear capabilities have a tendency to leak elsewhere, whatever the government does. Musharraf's removal will open some new possibilities for the private proliferator. There is very little that western powers can do about this other than to keep spying on it.


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