The ‘real’ Pakistani officials in charge of the nation’s vast nuclear and strategic arsenal have spent the past few months quietly laughing at the doomsday scenarios that American politicians and media organizations have been spinning for months now. These Pakistani officials say they are calm because of their confidence in their capabilities. However, this Pakistani calm should not be mistaken for weakness. “My message is: Don’t mess with us,” says Air Commodore Khalid Banuri, with pride.
Last November, The New York Times published what many analysts in Islamabad described as a misleading story, claiming that the United States had spent up to $100 million over the past five years to help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons.
The story coincided with reports alleging that elite U.S. troops already had access to Pakistan’s vast arsenal of nuclear and other strategic weapons.
Pakistani officials preferred to ignore these reports, confident about their capabilities and a little curious about where these bogus stories were coming from. These officials were also content with assurances from the Bush administration it had nothing to do with these reports.
But over the following weeks, Pakistani analysts carefully watched how the U.S. media campaign portraying Pakistan as a nuclear power incapable of securing its weapons grew bigger and was joined by prominent American academics and politicians.
The quality of the ‘media reports’ about Pakistani nukes also changed. Now the American media was talking about actual ‘war games’ conducted by American military institutions and think tanks as a prelude to sending in elite troops to ‘grab’ Pakistani nuclear weapons in case of instability in Pakistan on the pattern of typical Hollywood movie scripts.
The propaganda reached its zenith in January when Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the U.S. presidential hopeful, proposed joint American and British ‘supervision’ of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
But there is a reason why Pakistani responses to these reports remained mostly calm and calculated. It is because the women and men in charge of the Pakistani strategic arsenal were quietly making fun of the American allegations and at first did not even take them seriously.
“It’s laughable,” said Air Commodore Khalid Banuri, a director at the Strategic Plans Division, or the S.P.D., which is the Secretariat of the National Command Authority that controls the Pakistani strategic assets. “We did make the bomb, didn’t we? The world thought we couldn’t do it.”
Nevertheless, one of the founding members of the team that created Pakistan’s National Command Authority, retired Brigadier Naeem Salik, who is currently teaching at Washington’s Johns Hopkins University as a visiting scholar, is advising caution while dismissing the American reports.
“We can’t dismiss it as a media campaign. There is a background to it,” he told me last week during a visit to Islamabad.
I have argued that this U.S. media trial of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities is not natural. It’s not like a few American journalists suddenly found themselves out of stories and thought, “what the heck, let’s talk about Pakistani nukes.”
This campaign must be seen in the context of a deliberate U.S. strategy to destabilize Pakistan. This strategy includes the war on terror, the American exploitation of late Mrs. Benazir Bhutto, and the situation in Afghanistan.
By early December, 2007, Pakistani officials started watching this American campaign closely.
On 11 December, the chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Tariq Majid, blasted reports by “vested and hostile elements in the international media” about the security of its nuclear weapons, an army statement said.
“Suggestions have been made that our assets could either be neutralized or taken away towards safer places to prevent them from falling into wrong hands,” the statement quoted Majid as saying after witnessing the launch of the Pakistani-developed Babur-Hatf-7 cruise missile.
“Though no responsible state in the world can contemplate such an impossible operation, yet if someone did create such a scenario, Pakistan would meet the challenge strongly,” the statement said.
“Pakistan’s nuclear assets are very safe and secure, and the nation needs not to worry on that account. There is a very strong security system in place, which can ward off all threats, internal as well as external.”
Back at the S.P.D., I interviewed Air Commodore Banuri, on camera, and asked him about all the possibilities, including what Pakistan would do if its strategic installations came under attack.
His answer was simple: “My message is: Don’t mess with us.”
Here are excerpts from the interview. The entire television version is posted on the homepage of this website. A link is also provided below.
Air Commodore Khalid Banuri: It is laughable. We did make the bomb, didn’t we? The world thought we couldn’t do it. We, too, were always concerned about how to protect it. Since 1998, when South Asia went overtly nuclear … this is 2007, we have consistently augmented our systems, a point that many people forget or overlook.
Ahmed Quraishi: Who holds the authority to push the nuclear button in Pakistan?
Khalid Banuri: The short answer is very easy: Not an individual but the National Command Authority, comprised of all the senior decision makers of the country, [they] would look at all the issues including the deployment, if it ever comes to that.
AQ: Is it possible there could be a scientist on the inside, an extremist with links to terrorists, maybe Osama bin Laden, who could steal a Pakistani weapon …
KB: In a Tom Clancy fiction that could be a possibility. We are very sure of what our systems are.
AQ: What about the reports before 9/11 that mentioned the links between some of the scientists in our strategic programs, names, who met terrorists in Afghanistan?
KB: Those names, when you actually go into the details, had nothing to do with the classified side of our programs,[they might have been] some people from the system who perhaps were power plant engineers who had some sympathies and were doing some charity work.
The key thing here is that Pakistan investigated those situations and now we have a system that takes care of all aspects, even for our very respected scientists who retire. There is a system where they will be occupied in various ways and we will know what they are doing.
AQ: Let’s say there is a violent change of government in Islamabad. Someone hiding in the foothills of Islamabad breaks into one of your facilities, kills 5 or 6 guards, goes inside, picks up one of those nuclear weapons held in a very elaborate security parameter, takes it out, comes out of the building, puts it in the back of a truck or van and speeds away. How possible is this scenario?
KB: Absolutely not possible. But it is a fair question. We have several layers—a multitude of systems of security and technical solutions for security, some of which are non-intrusive and invisible. There are no exceptions for anyone from the outside going into a facility. There are various levels of access. Then there is the issue of insider threat. Not possible. We look at each individual who works within the system very closely. We look at them from various angles, something that the West knows at ‘persona reliability’, the human factor. We look into everything, background checks, medical records, police records, any history of possible impulsive behavior. And if there is anyone who doesn’t have a smooth graph of behavior, they are not put into any sensitive jobs. Even if there is someone in personal distress, for example because of a death in the family, there is a way for relieving them for a few days from sensitive responsibility.
AQ: So the cinematic perception of a Pakistani equivalent of a suitcase carried at all times by the President or the Prime Minister, containing the button for a nuclear missile or something, is not correct?
KB: The decision making about nuclear assets is very carefully thought out. It’s not a hair trigger situation. We all have seen many Cold War movies and many of these idea come from them.
AQ: Well said. Where are we keeping our nuclear bombs?
KB: The response to this question is in two words: Strategic Ambiguity. If anyone even claims he knows where our weapons are, they are wrong. And if they think they do, they are in for a rude shock. Even within the system, if someone doesn’t need to know about sensitive sites, they don’t have that information. So very few in Pakistan would know where they are. And I’m not going to tell you [smiling].
AQ: Really, I was kind of hoping for a hint. Okay, are the safeguards in the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel and India any better than the Pakistani nuclear safeguards?
KB: Even if I sound arrogant, ours are better. We have the advantage of hindsight. We have worked hard, we have trained hard, and we are very sure of what we have. We have learned from the best international practices. We don’t have aircrafts flying around with unauthorized nuclear missiles and we have a short nuclear history compared to some of the countries you mentioned.
AQ: Media reports have suggested that the Americans have helped Pakistan secure its nuclear assets, which implies that the Americans have access to Pakistani nukes?
KB: Ensuring nuclear security is our own interest. We made the bomb, we have the means to protect it, and we’re confident of that security. But we do not mind exposure to education and awareness, but in a completely non-intrusive way.
AQ: So you’re saying you have exchanged ideas with the Americans but not given them any access?
KB: Absolutely. That’s out of the question. That’s the red line that was defined even before we got into this exchange of ideas. We do have some rudimentary equipment and some training [from the U.S.]. And the kinds of figures you have seen in the media [about U.S. financial aid to secure Pakistani nuclear assets] are highly exaggerated.
AQ: The figure quoted was in the tens of millions …
KB: A $100 million was quoted in one report [New York Times, Nov. 2007]. Nowhere in that range.
AQ: Some Pakistanis are concerned and are asking what if the rudimentary equipment handed over to you contained a transmitter that could send out signals to a satellite or something exposing where our installations are?
KB: You have responded to the question yourself. Anyone concerned in Pakistan would have thought about this. The Pakistani nuclear establishment is always concerned about even the remotest of possibilities. We have this responsibility on behalf of this whole nation. It’s a sacred responsibility.
AQ: So let me put this to rest once and for all: you have not given access to the Americans as part of accepting their ‘help’?
KB: No access whatsoever. There are no foreigners who have any access to any Pakistani assets and they will never have. There are very few Pakistanis, even within our policy circle, who have all the information.
AQ: Does everyone concerned inside and outside the region understand there will be consequences if Pakistan’s strategic assets are attacked?
KB: Let me say it in plain words: Those who have hostile intent would know that any endeavor to attack Pakistan in any way will not be successful and it will be disastrous. Our weapons are meant for deterrence and not for [aggression]. But we have the capability to deal with any threat.
AQ: So we will respond if we are attacked?
KB: My message is: Don’t mess with us.
AQ: Late Mrs. Benazir Bhutto had publicly warned a few weeks before her tragic death that extremists could descend on the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and take control of the nearby nuclear installations at Kahuta. Is this true?
KB: I don’t want to get into the politics of this statement. But I’d like to make two points. One, Pakistan’s nuclear assets are safe and secure. I say this with a lot of confidence. And, Two, I’d request all Pakistanis, wherever they are, that they should not mix politics with nuclear security.
[End of Interview]
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