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Nuclear terror

Publication Date : 24-06-2012


Over the last decade, the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of (Islamic) terrorists has been projected by western policy circles as the greatest threat to international peace and security.

Extensive bureaucratic and military machinery has been created within governments and at the UN to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons, materials or knowledge by terrorists and extremists. Among states, Pakistan has encountered the greatest pressure to reassure the "international community" that its nuclear weapons and materials are "safe" and will not fall into the hands of terrorists and Islamic militants. Pakistan’s detractors next door and in western capitals have missed no opportunity to portray it as the most likely source of nuclear terrorism.

Nuclear weapons are devilishly complex to develop, deploy and use. India required five decades (1948-1998) to master the atomic bomb; Pakistan developed its capability over 24 years; North Korea acquired a primitive capability after 20 years.

Iran’s enrichment capacity has evolved in even slower motion. Terrorist organisations will find it virtually impossible to develop nuclear weapons by themselves.

No state is likely to share its nuclear weapons capability with non-state actors because their unaccountable use, or threat of use, of a nuclear weapon, would most certainly invite a retaliatory response endangering the very existence of the transferring state. Islamic jihadis may resort to suicide attacks; Islamic states are not suicidal.

Moreover, it is totally beyond the capability terrorist organisations to arm, aim and fire a nuclear weapon. These complex systems require the coordinated actions of an entire team of highly trained people to use them.

Numerous studies have established that if fissionable material were to be acquired, by theft or capture, by terrorists or other non-state actors, the most they could do with it is build and explode a radiation (dirty) bomb. Depending on population density, a dirty bomb’s casualties would number in the hundreds rather than thousands. In comparison, a "daisy-cutter" — the conventional fire and concussion bomb used extensively in Afghanistan — would cause thousands of casualties if dropped on a population centre.

The most destructive weapons a terrorist can acquire or build are chemical or biological weapons. Both are banned by international treaty. A system is in place to verify the chemical weapons ban. Not so for biological weapons.

Thousands of laboratories remain immune from international inspection due to opposition from the US and some other industrial countries. Recent news reports that scientists have developed bacteria immune to antibiotics are not reassuring.

Since Hiroshima, "nuclear terror" has been the monopoly of states. Today, nuclear terror emanates from the failure of states to address those security issues that could precipitate the deliberate or accidental use of nuclear weapons. There are at least five areas of "nuclear concern".

The planned deployment of US Anti-Ballistic Missile systems in Europe could erode the stability of deterrence, based, since the Cold War, on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Russia does not accept the American assurance that to be deployed ABMs are meant to shoot down Iranian rather than Russian missiles.

Although China faced nuclear threats in the early days, the nuclear equation has been a latent factor in China’s relations with both the US and Russia over the last four decades. This may change once the US implements its plans to deploy most of its naval forces to the Pacific and build a ring of alliances around China’s periphery. ABM systems could also be deployed by the US, Japan and India in the region. Unlike the US-Soviet Cold War relationship, there is no agreed doctrine to stabilise nuclear relations between China and the US.

In this context, the Korean peninsula is an especially dangerous nuclear "hot spot". A weak, insecure and nuclear-armed North Korean regime confronts coercive efforts to denuclearise it. A miscalculation on either side could lead to a disastrous conflagration.

In the Middle East, the danger arises from coercive efforts to maintain Israel’s nuclear monopoly. Iraq’s nuclear endeavours have been obliterated. An alleged clandestine nuclear facility in Syria was destroyed by Israel three years ago. There is widespread speculation that Iran will be attacked before its enrichment programme moves into what the Israelis have called "the zone of immunity". Iran’s direct and indirect retaliation will make the post-Arab Spring Middle East a most dangerous place.

The nuclear danger is pervasive in South Asia today. In 2004, Pakistan and India declared jointly that their acquisition of nuclear weapons had contributed to stability in South Asia. However, the nuclear parity which this declaration implied has been broken by three developments. The first and most important was the Indo-US Nuclear Cooperation Agreement which provided India a quantitative and a qualitative nuclear edge against Pakistan.

A second development was the publication of reports that the US has plans to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if these were in danger of being captured or taken over by Islamic radicals. Suffice it to say, plans to seize or destroy another country’s nuclear assets, and counter-measures to thwart this, do not mitigate the danger of conventional or non-conventional conflict.

The negative developments in Pakistan-US relations in 2011 validated and reinforced the dangerous strategic drift.

Today, the relationship has passed into the zone of hostility at the popular and official level. It is entirely uncertain where the American insults, collaboration with our regional adversaries and talk of "losing patience" with Pakistan will lead.

The history of the nuclear era reveals how often states have come, through blunder and miscalculation, to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. We continue to live with nuclear terror.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.


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