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Pakistan Moves Nuclear Weapons - Musharraf Says Arsenal Is Now Secure

Pakistan Moves Nuclear Weapons - Musharraf Says Arsenal Is Now Secure

Author: Molly Moore and Kamran Khan
Publication: Washington Post
Date: November 11, 2001

Islamabad, Pakistan, Nov. 10 -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ordered an emergency redeployment of the country's nuclear arsenal to at least six secret new locations and has reorganized military oversight of the nuclear forces in the weeks since Pakistan joined the U.S. campaign against terrorism, according to senior officials here.

Pakistan's military began relocating critical nuclear weapons components within two days of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, fearful of possible strikes against the country's nuclear facilities, military officials said. Another reason for the movement, officials added, was to remove them from air bases and corridors that might be used by the United States in an attack on Afghanistan.

Musharraf also created a new Strategic Planning Division within the nuclear program, headed by a three-star general to oversee operations. This decision, not previously disclosed, was part of the shuffle of top military and intelligence leaders just hours before the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began on Oct. 7. The shake-up was designed to sideline officers considered too sympathetic to the Taliban or other extremist religious factions, officials said.

Musharraf's actions were part of an effort to tighten security around Pakistan's nuclear weapons program in the face of widespread concerns that nuclear devices or fissile material could be vulnerable to attack or theft.

In addition, the changes were intended to help keep control of the nuclear program out of the hands of religious hard-liners in the military if Musharraf is assassinated or ousted from office, officials said.

"Nukes everywhere are susceptible to hijacking," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physics professor at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University and one of the few vocal anti-nuclear activists in Pakistan. "There are special dangers here."

Although Pakistan's nuclear program remains one of the world's most secretive, the country is believed to have the materials to assemble between 30 and 40 warheads and has test-fired intermediate-range missiles that potentially could be used to launch them, according to intelligence reports and nuclear experts.

Pakistan and India, both nuclear powers, have fought three conventional wars, two of them over the contentious Kashmir border region. Both Pakistan and India tested underground nuclear devices in 1998, and the two countries are viewed by many security experts as the globe's most worrisome nuclear flashpoint. An escalation of attacks across the Kashmir border just over two years ago underscored the dangers between the distrustful neighbors.

Pakistani fears of an Indian attack on its nuclear sites were so great in the summer of 1999, after Pakistani-supported guerrillas invaded Indian territory, that military officers here secretly contacted Taliban officials about the possibility of moving some nuclear assets west to neighboring Afghanistan for safekeeping, according to a recently retired Pakistani general officer familiar with the talks.

"The option was actively discussed with the Taliban after some indications emerged that India may open hostilities at the eastern border," the official said. "The Taliban accepted the requests with open arms."

The official also said the talks were "exploratory" and that no nuclear-related assets were placed in Afghanistan. At the time, Pakistan's military and intelligence services had close relations with the Taliban, providing training, weapons and other support.

Concerned that the 1999 flare-up could lead to full-scale war between India and Pakistan, President Bill Clinton intervened, inviting Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister at the time, to the White House for a July 4 meeting.

Musharraf, who ousted Pakistan's civilian government in a nonviolent coup six months later, now controls the nuclear weapons program more by virtue of his position as army chief of staff than his title as president. Pakistan's nuclear program has always been under the control of the military, which has often hidden the most basic details of the program from civilian leaders.

Since agreeing to assist the United States in the military and anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, Musharraf has remained solidly in control of Pakistan and its military. Speaking today before the U.N. General Assembly, he sought to reassure the world that his country's nuclear arsenal was secure.

"Pakistan is fully alive to the responsibilities of its nuclear status," Musharraf said. "Let me assure you all that our strategic assets are well guarded and in safe hands."

But some military leaders and political analysts have expressed concern about whether his grip will weaken if the conflict in Afghanistan continues. Pakistan in the past 25 years has endured two military coups, four dismissed governments and an attempted coupagainst the top civilian and military leadership.

After the 1998 tests, Pakistan's civilian prime minister, Sharif, had promised to set up a national command authority over the nuclear arsenal, but his efforts stalled over over what role the army would allow civilian authorities to play, Pakistani officials said.

With Musharraf's coup and military control over the country in 1999, the question of civilian control became moot. In February 2000, Musharraf established the National Command Authority over the nuclear program.

Last month he further tightened oversight, creating the new division to handle the daily operations and control of the nuclear program, officials said.

Gen. Khalid Kidwai, who answers directly to Musharraf, is now directing the operational security of the country's nuclear sites and weapons. Military officials said he has increased the number of troops and antiaircraft batteries guarding sensitive locations, and has supervised the relocation of nuclear devices and potential delivery vehicles, such as missiles and aircraft.

Reports by the CIA and other sources say Pakistan stores its nuclear weapons devices and missiles separately. However, military officials here said that in emergency conditions, such as those of the past two months, equipment is repositioned to allow for rapid assembly. Pakistani officials said that in general the repositioning represented a dispersal of the materials, but details could not be learned.

Pakistani officials have dismissed recent reports of alleged U.S. contingency plans to seize Pakistan's nuclear devices in the event that Musharraf is overthrown or assassinated by religious extremists. "It would be an unmitigated disaster," said Mushahid Hussain, a ranking official in the Sharif government at the time of Pakistan's nuclear tests. "You would be talking about waging war on Pakistan," he said, adding that if the United States had sufficient intelligence to locate Pakistan's nuclear sites, "we wouldn't have built the bomb."

Still, for many Pakistanis, U.S. officials and international observers, one of the greatest concerns for the country's nuclear weapons program is the potential that extremist Islamic elements could either gain control of the nuclear weapons or materials, or share knowledge about them with hostile organizations or regimes.

"Both India and Pakistan have their own fundamentalists," Abdul Qadir Khan, the now-retired founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, said in an interview earlier this year. "This is a serious matter, and we don't want to take any chances that they could fall into the wrong hands."

Six years ago a group of Pakistani army officers, described at the time as holding "fanatic Islamic views," was arrested for plotting to overthrow then-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as well as the army chief of staff, Gen. Abdul Waheed. Waheed had angered extremist elements in the military when he fired the chief of Pakistan's intelligence service for providing covert military support to Muslim rebels in about a dozen countries.

Musharraf has likewise attempted to purge the military and intelligence services of officers he considers overly sympathetic to the Taliban and other extremist religious groups. He fired the country's top intelligence chief and reassigned other key officials two hours before the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan.

Another sign of anxiety over the nuclear program was the unusual arrest last month of three Pakistani nuclear scientists, including one of the country's most decorated nuclear experts.

Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who held key appointments in each of Pakistan's three most important nuclear facilities in a career that spanned nearly three decades and earned him the country's second-highest civilian award, remains under investigation by Pakistan's military intelligence services for alleged meetings with Taliban officials and Arab nationals during three visits to Kandahar, the birthplace and spiritual capital of the Taliban, according to an official familiar with the probe.

"The basic fact that Mahmood came in contact with some Arabs -- close to both [Taliban leader] Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden -- is enough to keep him under investigation," the official said.

Pakistani officials said that throughout his interrogation by senior military intelligence officials, Mahmood insisted that his contacts with Taliban ministers and two Arab nationals in Kandahar were related to the work of Ummah Tameer-e-Nau [Islamic Reconstruction], a relief agency he helped establish last year for building roads and other construction projects in Afghanistan.

The two other nuclear scientists who were arrested reportedly worked for the same charitable organization. One has been cleared of suspicion, while the other remains under investigation, officials said.

A Pakistani government official said last week that all three men had been cleared of any wrongdoing, but officials involved in the investigation said it is continuing.

"We would love to believe all . . . [Mahmood] says, but some questions like the satellite phone calls that he had received from Afghanistan in August this year are yet to be answered to our satisfaction," the official said. "It would still be premature to claim that Mahmood discussed his nuclear expertise with his foreign friends."

Under questioning, Mahmood indicated that he became disillusioned with the Pakistani government when the Inter-Services Intelligence agency recommended his transfer from the sensitive position of the director of plutonium production at the Khushab atomic reactor to a desk job in the spring of 1999, according to the official.

Senior Pakistani officials reportedly were concerned that Mahmood had been vocally advocating extensive production of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium enrichment to help equip other Islamic nations with nuclear arsenals.

"Intelligence agencies had strongly recommended that it would be dangerous to allow Mahmood to hold a crucial appointment at the country's plutonium production facility," said a senior civilian official involved in Pakistan's nuclear program.

A family friend, who asked that his name not be used, said Mahmood felt betrayed by the government he had served for 28 years. The friend said that in a recent conversation, Mahmood told him that his knowledge about Pakistan's nuclear program was a state secret, but not his expertise on enriching uranium and producing weapons-grade plutonium.

Mahmood did not hide his personal views, which he articulated in numerous public speeches in the past several months, according to several associates.

Khan reported from Karachi, Pakistan. Correspondent Pamela Constable and researcher Yesim Forsythe also contributed to this report.

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