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TematicheMedio Oriente e Nord AfricaPakistan’s nuclear program: The three-dimensional threat facing the world

Pakistan’s nuclear program: The three-dimensional threat facing the world


The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has reignited international debate on the risks associated with the security of nuclear facilities and weapons.  During the clash, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant caught fire on March 4. Another casualty was the nuclear facility at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. According to experts, the danger to Ukraine’s nuclear power plants is not over yet.

The developments also expose the inherent risk in potential mishandling of facilities or even misuse of nuclear weapons in states with weaker institutions. The risks are even greater in the South-Asian region with the presence of nuclear capability in one of the most terrorism-affected and politically-volatile country, i.e. Pakistan. The fact that the capability was acquired by Islamabad using stolen technologies from Western countries with a narrow aim of targeting only its bigger neighbor, India, makes the situation more worrisome. While Indian possession of nuclear capability is marked with years of political maturity, institutional strength, restraint and an official adherence to no first use policy, Pakistan’s credentials are anything but satisfactory on all these counts. 

For a major part of its post-partition history, Pakistan has been plagued by over-ambitious politicians and wily military leaders. Their long-drawn efforts to contain domestic terrorism have also not gone anywhere and the problems have accentuated post 9/11. Despite an overflow of US aid during the last two decades to fight terrorism, the country remains a preferred harbor for it, fomenting trouble both domestically and at Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and India. The manner in which Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have forced the government to surrender to their demands during last two years, the danger of them getting a foothold in the state’s decision making cannot be ignored. There is a growing apprehension of jihadis even taking control of Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

This fear of Pakistan’s nuke stockpile falling into wrong hands has haunted the world, especially a long score of U,S, presidents, since May 1998, when Pakistan first began testing nuclear weapons. Former U.S. President Barack Obama had underlined that “the single biggest threat to U.S. security, short-, medium- and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Being a playground for several terrorist entities like TLP, TTP, al-Qaida, or the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura, Pakistan proves to be the perfect model of this risk. During the last decade, there have been several terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s defence bases that reportedly store nuclear material. The Kamra Air Base near Islamabad has been attacked three times by terrorists belonging to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

The gradual radicalization of the Pakistani army has also translated into instances of insiders aligning with jihadi organizations to strike the defense apparatus. The extent of terrorist infiltration in Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military was clear terrorists, acting with alleged intelligence assistance from these “insiders,” mounted an attack on one of Pakistan’s biggest naval bases, Mehran Naval Base near Karachi in 2011. 

Though deep-rooted terrorism is the biggest risk for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads, it is not the only one. The second major risk emanates from the manner in which Pakistan has developed nuclear weapons, using technology stolen from western countries and procured from international grey networks. Through its vulnerable institutions and some non-state actors, Pakistan in return has aided the illegal proliferation of this technology to other parts of the world. According to some analysts, the country ran a nuclear smuggling ring from its diplomatic missions and other agencies for many years. The activities centered the so-called Father of Pakistan’s atomic programme, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Though officially denied by Pakistan, the network spearheaded by Khan had exported technology to countries like North Korea and Iran. 

The third risk facing the world – and more directly the South-Asian region – is the unchecked expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear prowess by exploiting the dual use technology imports. The recent publication of ‘Threat Assessment Report’ by the Norwegian Security Agencies has reminded the international community of the unhindered exploitation of dual use technology by Islamabad. The report identified Pakistan to be among the countries posing greatest threat, misleading the world in procuring internationally controlled items and technologies to aid its nuclear programme.The three-pronged threat qualifies Pakistan to be a nuclear unsafe country, which can threaten global security in a unique manner. This calls for increased international collaboration for a strong vigil over various activities concerning both civil and military nuclear programmes of the country.

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