x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Pakistan refrains from nuclear day celebrations

Observers say events to mark country's national pride could have been targeted as Islamabad fights battle against militants.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan commemorated its 11th nuclear anniversary last week in an uncharacteristically subdued manner. Unlike past years the day passed without much fanfare and jubilation, with the country still rattled by a car bombing in Lahore the day before that left 30 people dead.

"The country is in the middle of a war and in this context, this moment of national pride passed without any official celebration," said Maria Sultan, who heads the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute, an independent think tank based in London that focuses on nuclear issues. "The leadership is completely overtaken by the complexities that have been put forward by this war." Ms Sultan said because there were fears that the terrorists could target any national event marking the nuclear anniversary, "official celebrations were deferred in larger interests of national security".

Pakistan's nuclear programme is under immense international scrutiny amid fears of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Taliban militants, who have been battling the country's security forces. Pakistan detonated its nuclear bomb on May 28 1998 under the premiership of Nawaz Sharif, the current opposition leader and two-time former prime minister. While the national sentiment continues to glorify the country's nuclear bomb, concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear programme and its expansion keep surfacing internationally.

The Washington Post reported last week that "some time next year, at a tightly guarded site south of its capital, Pakistan will be ready to start churning out a new stream of plutonium for its nuclear arsenal, which will eventually include warheads for ballistic missiles and cruise missiles capable of being launched from ships, submarines or aircraft". While addressing a crowd of supporters in Lahore on Thursday, Mr Sharif struck a rather sombre tone and stressed the programme's safety.

Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, said on Friday that nuclear weapons were a "cornerstone of Pakistan's deterrence strategy". "We are determined to retain nuclear deterrence at all cost and no compromise will be made on our core security interest", a statement released by the prime minister's office read. Some Pakistani analysts say the alarm over the country's nuclear programme is exaggerated.

"There is a deliberate, orchestrated campaign in the West against our nuclear programme," Mansoor Ahmed, an Islamabad-based independent researcher working on Pakistan's nuclear programme, said in an interview. "It is centred around the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the expansion in its existing nuclear infrastructure. "Despite repeated briefings and assurances by the Pakistani nuclear establishment and officials of the government on the safety of the nuclear programme, the western media continues to come up with a new story every week that creates doubt about the country's nuclear arsenal's security."

That the campaign is heating up now is not coincidental, Mr Ahmed said "It seems to be particularly timed with Pakistan's war on Taliban militants," he said. Ms Sultan agrees. "The basic issue is that the United States understands that Pakistan is sensitive to its nuclear programme. And the pressure exerted by the US on Pakistani government on nuclear issues is to tailor Pakistani policies regarding the Taliban in accordance with American terms," she said.

"It is absurd to think that Taliban can get access to any part of the nuclear programme, let alone take over the weapons themselves, given that Pakistan has established an institutionalised and state-of-the-art nuclear command and control system," Mr Ahmed said. "It includes a 10,000-strong force of personnel dedicated to the physical security of all of Pakistan's nuclear facilities." "As far as Abdul Qadeer Khan's proliferation is concerned, he managed to smuggle out some used gas centrifuges to Iran, Libya and North Korea", Mr Mansoor said, referring to the scientist regarded as the founder of Pakistan's nuclear programme, who was involved in a clandestine network of nuclear weapons technology proliferation.

"But centrifuge technology has to be built in-house for successful enrichment of uranium and a few dozen centrifuges alone are not sufficient unless all the other technologies are mastered," Mr Mansoor said. "These include expertise in uranium processing and conversion without which enrichment is not possible and in post enrichment phase, uranium metallurgy and all aspects of nuclear weapons design, development and testing - none of which was illicitly exported out of Pakistan."

But some in the country vehemently oppose the concentration on nuclear weapons. "Pakistan's security problems cannot be solved by better weapons", wrote Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist, in Dawn, the country's leading daily newspaper. "Instead, the way forward lies in building a sustainable and active democracy, an economy for peace rather than war, a federation in which provincial grievances can be effectively resolved, elimination of the feudal order and creating a society that respects the rule of law." smasood@thenational.ae