Pakistan nuclear terror: an interview with Stanford's Scott Sagan

Editor’s note: this article is part of "Too Dangerous to Fail," an occasional series on nuclear security issues in Pakistan and beyond. Read more about Pakistan's volatile cocktail of instability, extremism and plutonium.

U.S. relations with Pakistan have worsened rapidly in recent weeks.

Osama bin Laden’s hideout in the garrison town of Abbottabad raised suspicions that Pakistani security officials might have been sheltering America’s most wanted. On the other hand, after the U.S. killed the terror chief, officials in Islamabad expressed outrage over President Barack Obama’s decision to violate their sovereignty.

Last weekend CIA director Leon Panetta flew to Pakistan to confront officials with evidence that military insiders had tipped off Taliban fighters to an imminent U.S.-backed raid on camps where they make bombs for use against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. These tensions are worrisome given that Pakistan has one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing nuclear arsenals.

To get a better sense of the risks that the arsenal could fall into terrorist hands, GlobalPost spoke with Scott D. Sagan, one of the world’s leading authorities on Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Professor Sagan is the co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and the co-chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Global Nuclear Future Initiative. Before joining the Stanford faculty, he served as a special assistant to the director of the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon. He has served as a consultant to the office of the Secretary of Defense and at the Sandia National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is the editor of Inside Nuclear South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2009.)

The interview was edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

To what extent should we worry about the security of Pakistan's weapons or fissionable material will end up in the hands of terrorists?

I think that the security of both Pakistani nuclear weapons and Pakistani fissionable will remain a serious concern for the United States and all international actors.

We invaded Iraq with the goal of seizing weapons of mass destruction, and we're engaged in a standoff with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear weapons initiative. Pakistan has a bigger and more aggressive program, and before 9/11 it was actually the target of U.S. sanctions because of its arsenal. Why has the U.S. chosen to engage Pakistan over its nuclear program, and does this policy still make sense 10 years after 9/11?

Pakistan is in a different category than the cheating regimes under the non-proliferation treaty — that is Iraq, Iran and North Korea — for two reasons. One is that Pakistan never signed the non-proliferation treaty, so its pursuit of nuclear weapons was something the United States did not want, but it had no legal standing to say that Pakistan was violating an international agreement that it had signed.

That's not the case with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, all of whom were caught violating the non-proliferation treaty, which they had voluntarily signed and ratified. Pakistan's actions were unfortunate, but they were not illegal.

The second reason is that the United States has strong geo-strategic reasons to seek Pakistani assistance with respect to the conflict in Afghanistan, and the long-standing war with Al Qaeda and other groups.

Pakistan has very much been both an ally and adversary. They have not been fully supportive of all U.S. goals, but have been supportive of some U.S. goals. And given Pakistan's position and its longstanding use of its own terrorist-supported activities against India, they've been playing a double game with respect to the war on terrorism — fighting some terrorist organizations groups that threaten the regime, but using others as a surrogate in the conflict against India.

Washington has an unusual relationship with Islamabad in that we provide billions in aid and we sell F-16s that could be used for nuclear weapons delivery. At the same time, we currently have a Pakistani executive from a Maryland trading company in custody on suspicion of supplying materials for Islamabad's nuclear program. So we’re trying to stop Pakistan from growing its program at the same time we're trying to safeguard it. And we're also taking steps that —perhaps unintentionally — help them use the arsenal. Is this policy working?

The U.S. government has had a longstanding internal debate about whether to isolate Pakistan and punish it for its nuclear weapons program, or to engage Pakistan to try to contain the program and reduce its size and growth. The policy has been of mixed success.

Before 9/11 the United States government had minimal ties to the group within the Pakistani military that had responsibility for nuclear weapons. According to many press reports, after 9/11 the United States government cooperated by selling some technology and providing some training, not for the delivery of nuclear weapons, but rather for the safety and security of nuclear weapons, fearing an Al Qaeda or related group's attack. What the U.S. government doesn't know, because Pakistan is so secretive in this area, is what Pakistan has done with those technologies and training programs.

It is believed — and I think this is accurate — that under normal peacetime circumstances, the Pakistani military keeps all or virtually all of the weaponry inside well-armed and guarded Pakistani military bases. That doesn't mean that those weapons are entirely safe, but it means that they are relatively safe from terrorist seizure. The greatest danger there would be an inside threat of some sort.

The real danger, I believe, comes if the Pakistani military fears an attack, by either India or the United States. Under those circumstances — whether they're fearful of a raid against their nuclear weaponry, or a military attack using missiles or bombers — they have every incentive for the sake of deterrence, to take the weapons out of their bases and move them to the countryside where they will be less vulnerable to an attack from India or the U.S.

The danger is that makes the weapons more vulnerable to a terrorist seizure, either from an insider or from a terrorist organization. Such a seizure would not require penetrating the defenses of a military base to get to a weapon. Rather, terrorists could simply attack a convoy with nuclear weapons in the countryside.

So as contorted as the current U.S. policy seems, maintaining some level of trust between the U.S. and Pakistan is critical.

It is very much in the United States' interest to persuade the Pakistanis that, despite the Osama bin Laden raid, the United States has no desire for any kind of raid against Pakistan's nuclear forces. If they fear that we're going to do that, that will actually make matters worse, because they would have the incentive to hide the weapons in the countryside, or to place them on the mobile launch systems that they've created, and that makes them more vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

Some experts say the recent attack against the PNS Mehran naval base in Karachi and in 2009 against the Army’s General Headquarters amount to a virtual blueprint on nuclear assets. Would you agree?

I wouldn't state that it's a virtual blueprint, but it shows that there's a serious risk of an Al Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban attack on a military base and the Pakistani military must train and take that mission very seriously. It's all the more reason that we want India-Pakistani relations to stay calm, so we can keep the Pakistani weapons in a well guarded and protected storage site inside the bases.

What about the scenario of a radicalized insider helping to seize nuclear materials for terrorists? With 8,000 to 12,000 people in the Pakistani nuclear program, how likely do you think this scenario is?

I don't think anyone can provide an accurate estimate in terms of the probability of insider threats. What we do know is that the Pakistanis have learned about the personnel reliability programs that the United States has put into place at our nuclear weapons facilities. Indeed, a number of years ago, after the Pakistani foreign minister was briefed on such programs by an American academic team from Stanford University, the Pakistani military responded by saying that they're going to study and develop such personnel reliability programs [which are essentially screening operations to ensure the stability and trustworthiness of people working at nuclear facilities]. He also said they would develop emergency search teams to get a weapon back if they're ever stolen.

So they're aware of these problems, and they're very sensitive to them, but how effective those systems are in a radicalized country? We don't know the details, and we have to hope that the Pakistanis are taking it very seriously.

Clearly in the past, they had many more radical jihadi sympathizers within the ranks of the military. After 9/11, when President Pervez Musharraf decided to support the United States, many of those people were purged from the ISI [Pakistan's spy service] and the military. Those people were called long-beards — they were they guys who didn't shave, they didn't have the British clean-shaven with a mustache look that the Pakistani military often has. These days, you can't recognize a long-beard ideological sympathizer because they can shave their beards. So we presume there are ongoing personnel reliability programs to identify who might be susceptible to bribery or ideological empathy inside the Pakistani military.

But clearly some in the Pakistani [security forces] still maintain interest in and connections to jihadis, because they are utilizing some of them for [Pakistan’s] conflict with India. Whether that could become the Frankenstein monster that turns on the doctors who think they’re controlling it remains to be seen.

Should the latest attack in Karachi make us more concerned about the possibility of extremists trying to seize a nuclear device?

It and the attack on the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi show that terrorist groups can mount a serious military operation, not just suicide bombings. So it is very disturbing. This should increase what's called the design basis threat, used by the Pakistani military. All organizations trying to protect sensitive technology have to develop the threat against which to measure their security. The reasonable level of security depends on the threat. And clearly those attacks demonstrated that Pakistani Taliban are capable of launching a significant attack.

According to a recent Newsweek report, Pakistanis are working on a fourth nuclear reactor, enabling the country's weapons program to grow at an even faster pace than it currently is. Does this add to the threat of a security breach?

Yes. More sites and more materials mean that there are more individuals who could be potential insider threats. And more sites that have to be protected.

In addition to the possibility of new materials at an additional reactor, the Paksitani military has reportedly started flight tests of a new missile, the NASR, or the HATF-9, which the Pakistani military has announced will be a short-range missile that could carry nuclear warheads. According to retired Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, the director of the strategic plans division, the HAFT-9 is a quick-response system — necessary, he said, to deter evolving threats. I think what he's referring to here is India's "cold start doctrine," which is an Indian conventional military option to respond to a Pakistani provocation, like another Mumbai attack, by sending conventional forces quickly into Pakistani territory.

General Kidwai's statement suggests that these short-range missiles would carry nuclear warheads and could be used to try to deter the Indians from launching such an attack and having such an attack go deeply inside Pakistan and create vulnerabilities.

The danger here is partly that both sides might misunderstand each other and that escalation could occur. It is also that this kind of short-range system must be put on a missile launcher outside military bases. These are mobile trucks carrying the missile with a nuclear warhead. If the Pakistanis are trying to deter India from crossing the border or the international line of control in Kashmir by deploying those kinds of nuclear forces, the HAFT-9 might have some deterrent effect on the Indian military, but that's exactly the kind of Pakistani nuclear force operation that raises the risks of a terrorist seizing a weapon, either through a direct attack or through an insider cooperating with militants.

Pakistan can already destroy major Indian cities. Why isn't that enough? Why does it need to grow its weapons capacity so quickly?

Do I think Pakistan needs to expand their nuclear forces to provide a credible deterrent? My answer would be, no. But it really doesn't matter what Americans or Western officials think. What matters is what the Pakistani military believes is necessary for the sake of deterrence. They seem to be indicating by their behavior that they believe expanding their arsenal is necessary.

And finally, what should the U.S. be doing that it's not doing already?

I believe that we should continue to engage the Pakistani military authorities and especially civilian authorities including those in the Atomic Energy Commission of Pakistan about what are the best practices that we and others in the international community use to protect fissile materials.

There are threats of terrorist attacks not just in Pakistan but around the world, and the international community has developed — through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Institute for Nuclear Security — sets of best practices that can be useful for Pakistan and for us. I think it can be useful to continue and heighten the dialogues about what we've done and others have done to protect our own nuclear materials from potential terrorist seizure, and learn therefore what Pakistan might be able to do themselves.

It has some very unusual aspects to its security challenge because of their own use of terrorists against India, but Pakistan is not alone in facing this threat. We need to share our best practices with each other, and we could learn from each other in that regard.

Read more GlobalPost coverage of Pakistan’s nuclear risks.

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