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Risk Assessment: Pakistan

November 5, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Pakistan this weekend, part of his mission was to stiffen the resolve of one of America’s most critical allies. Pakistan shares a border with Afghanistan and a large Islamic population skeptical of the United States. It also has its own nuclear stockpile. No outsiders know how many nuclear weapons Pakistan may have or precisely where they are. But Rumsfeld, speaking in India today, said he believes they will not fall into the wrong hands.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I do not personally believe that there is a risk with respect to the nuclear weapons of countries that have those weapons. I think those countries are careful and respectful of the dangers that they pose and manage their safe handling effectively.

GWEN IFILL: But some experts worry that if Islamic militants were to seize power in Pakistan, the nuclear stockpile could become a dangerous new part of an anti-U.S. arsenal. And Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf angered many of his own citizens who support Afghanistan’s Taliban government by endorsing the U.S. bombing campaign.

Pakistan and India have both had nuclear programs since the 1970s, and the two historic enemies began dueling nuclear weapons tests in 1998. Pakistan and India have fought each other in three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, twice over the Himalayan territory they both claim in the Kashmir region.

Tensions over the disputed region have risen again in recent weeks. The United States has sought to walk a fine line diplomatically, maintaining friendly relations all around, while keeping an eye on the nuclear capacities of both nations. Sensitivities are close to the surface. Last week, the Pakistan government arrested three scientists, including this nuclear engineer.

The men were questioned about suspected ties to the Taliban, and later released. The topic of nuclear weaponry is likely to be on the agenda when Presidents Musharraf and Bush meet for the first time.

GWEN IFILL: We get three views now, two Pakistani and one American. The Pakistanis are Zia Mian, a physicist with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton; and Samina Ahmed, a political scientist at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. The American is Michael Krepon, founding president of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. He has written extensively about nuclear proliferation. Zia Mian, let’s start with you. What do we know about the extent of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal if there is such a thing?

ZIA MIAN, Princeton University: We know very little about the program itself. Most people estimate that perhaps there are only a couple of dozen nuclear weapons at most and that they are certainly Pakistan’s security crown jewels after two decades of huge investment of scientific and economic resources. Pakistan has succeeded in making and testing nuclear weapons, and we all believe that it will use either the U.S.-made F-16 fighters that were sold to Pakistan in the1980s as a delivery system or perhaps in a crisis the ballistic missiles that Pakistan has been testing.

GWEN IFILL: Samina Ahmed, is that your understanding as well? We’ve heard anything from 24 to 36 to 50 missiles, warheads?

SAMINA AHMED, Harvard University: Well, there are estimates and they have to be estimates because there is no knowledge of the exact production of fissile material but the estimates range from between 20 to 40, enough fissile material for between 20 to 40 warheads.

GWEN IFILL: These are warheads, which are deployable or are they in pieces? How do you measure that?

SAMINA AHMED: They are currently unassembled, which means that they are cores, but the explosives are kept aside from the cores and they are not deployed, and neither are they in the same place as the delivery systems. At least this is what the Pakistan government says. And this is also the assessment of the Pentagon.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Krepon, how about the facilities? Are there factories where these nuclear warheads are being put together, where they’re being manufactured? How is that?

MICHAEL KREPON, Stimson Center: Well, there’s a large infrastructure of nuclear- related facilities in the country. Most of them are in the heartland, the Punjab. There are production facilities for highly enriched uranium, and there are production facilities for plutonium.

GWEN IFILL: Now, is this extensive in our understanding of the amount of plutonium and uranium that there is around the world in different countries or is it fairly limited?

MICHAEL KREPON: Well, the best guesses of the outside world is that Pakistan has sufficient fissionable material, highly enriched plutonium, to make the warheads that Samina and Zia have told you about. Perhaps two, three, maybe even four dozen.

GWEN IFILL: Zia Mian, how much of a wild card is the existence of this nuclear material in this current situation we find ourselves in trying to remain friends and establish a strong ally relationship with Pakistan?

ZIA MIAN: I think that what is actually happening is that all our concerns about proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons material and nuclear weapons knowledge from the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years ago is now being pushed into this present crisis. There’s really no comparison.

The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons, as the U.S. has, had many tens of thousands of nuclear scientists and huge facilities where material that was lost in the bookkeeping far exceeds everything that Pakistan, we believe, has even been able to make.

So in terms of the possible risks of nuclear material being transferred into the hands of other people or nuclear scientists sharing technology or, God forbid, even a nuclear weapon going astray, the risks have always been much greater from the former Soviet Union’s complex than from Pakistan.

But I think that the concerns we’ve had for ten years about that are now being pushed into this particular crisis. I’m not sure that it actually merits the concern that we’re giving it. The longer-term concern is actually much more important, and that is, that we’ve had nuclear crises between Pakistan and India before threatening a nuclear war between the two.

GWEN IFILL: We’ll be hearing more about that issue about warheads in Russia or material in Russia in our next report. Samina Ahmed, I am curious, if you can pick up on that last point which is how much are our concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear capability fueled by our great concern about instability along the Pakistani-Indian border?

SAMINA AHMED: We hear a lot more about it after September 11th. That’s for obvious reasons. This concern that al-Qaida could possibly be trying to acquire fissile material or possibly even acquire warheads. Seeing that Pakistan is right next door and it has a nuclear weapons program and because there are elements within Pakistan who are pro- Taliban. It’s like putting two and two together and making four.

That really doesn’t quite merit, as Zia said, the kind of attention that’s being given to the dangers of loose nukes in the Pakistani context. This is still, relatively speaking, a nascent nuclear weapons program. There isn’t that much fissile material. And they aren’t assembled and deployed nuclear weapons.

GWEN IFILL: Even though sanctions have been lifted as a result of what happened September 11th against Pakistan because of its involvement in developing nuclear weapons and even though we are now in this position where Pakistan is so vital to this coalition you don’t think that September 11th has changed in any way our concern about the existence of nuclear weaponry in Pakistan?

SAMINA AHMED: I think it’s really led to this concern about nuclear terrorism, and that in a way that’s how Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is seen. I mean, you heard Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld saying that he doesn’t think that safety and security are problems, but at the same time there is this underlying fear: Could it happen? Could it possibly happen?

GWEN IFILL: Michael Krepon, how about that? Both Secretary Rumsfeld and as Samina Ahmed just mentioned a moment ago, Pervez Musharraf the President of Pakistan have said not to worry, we are fine, we have great command and control over these materials, do we have any reason to doubt that?

MICHAEL KREPON: Well, first, we have to look at the current strategic context for Pakistan. Number one, the war in Afghanistan is stressing out the country. The religious party leaders have in effect declared war on the government of Pakistan.

They’ve called on the overthrow of this government and they are in detention. Sedition charges are being prepared against them. The situation along this dividing line in Kashmir that we’ve talked about is also tense. This is the time of year when people tend to go across — Jihadis tend to go across, before the winter snows come.

We are looking forward to a time when there will be high level diplomacy, the president of Pakistan, the prime minister of India will be coming to the United States; and when high-level diplomacy happens, acts of terror also usually happen.

To add salt on these wounds, this is also the time when military exercises take place. So the situation is a little rough around the edges. On the other hand, as Samina and Zia have suggested, the army leadership has shown itself to be cohesive. The chain of command is intact, and the army leadership takes its custodial responsibilities very, very seriously.

GWEN IFILL: Zia Mian, is there any reason to worry about President Musharraf’s stability, his ability to hold on to office at a time when so many of his own folks are so unhappy with his alliance with the United States; and if there is reason to worry, which I know you’ll answer that question first, if there is reason to worry, does that have any connection to the nuclear question?

ZIA MIAN: I think that there is reason to worry. But it’s almost as if what has happened is that General Musharraf is now losing control, not to the Islamic fundamentalists but actually to U.S. war planning. What happens is that as the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan continues, radical Islamic groups in Pakistan are starting to learn how to mobilize public opinion against the government really for the first time.

They’ve always previously called on the Army to step in to take over because they’ve opposed democratically elected leaders. For the first time, Pakistan’s Islamic leaders and Islamic political parties are challenging the army directly. This is new politics for them.

It will take them time to learn how to do it, how to mobilize public opinion but the longer the U.S. bombing goes on, the more severe the U.S. bombing is, the greater the number of civilian casualties, the greater the number of refugees the suffering that they see people in Afghanistan facing, the more success they will have at mobilizing public opinion and, therefore, weakening General Musharraf.

But it’s important to remember that General Musharraf sits in charge of an army of 800,000 soldiers. He is able to stay in charge. But what may happen is that General Musharraf may win this battle but lose the war in that several years from now the political opportunity that radical Islam is now being given may actually lead to Pakistan succumbing to radical Islam and a radical Islamic government taking power.

Then of course the nuclear weapons will be in the hands of the legitimate although radical Islamic government of Pakistan. And what happens between Pakistan and India then over Kashmir and over others issues becomes a hugely difficult question. That’s really where I think attention needs to be focused, not on the short term but on the long term.

GWEN IFILL: Samina Ahmed, what is your response to that? Do you think that the long-term internal problem-you’re shaking your head so perhaps I already know the answer to this question-but do you believe that a long-term internal battles are really what we should be girding ourselves for in relations to the nuclear situation in Pakistan?

SAMINA AHMED: I really think that this is such an exaggerated threat –Islamic radicals taking over the government of Pakistan and controlling Pakistan’s nuclear assets. One isn’t likely to see that happen. Instability, yes but then Pakistan has always been in not a very stable state. Radical Islam, it’s been there for a very long time — in fact from the first round of Afghan fighting since the 1980s. That’s when radical Islam started to take root. A doomsday scenario of this sort I don’t see happening.

GWEN IFILL: How about the potential for escalation between India and Pakistan leading to use of nuclear weapons?

SAMINA AHMED: There I think is where the attention needs to be focused. Yes, I think attention needs to be focused on domestic Pakistani politics. The U.S. needs to tell the military, “return to representative rule.” That’s the only way of gaining the support of the mainstream political parties, et cetera. But as far as the tensions between India and Pakistan are concerned, now there I think I agree with mike and I agree with Zia, that should be a matter of major concern for the United States.

GWEN IFILL: I just wanted to get one more question to Michael Krepon. Do you believe that there is any evidence that al-Qaida is on the way to attempting to acquire some nuclear capability and if there’s any evidence of that, what should the United States be doing to guard against this?

MICHAEL KREPON: Well, many people, myself included, presume that al-Qaida would love to get its hands on fissionable material or other deadly weapons. There is no evidence as yet, according to our Secretary of Defense, that this has happened. What we need to do in my judgment is to continue to offer the government of Pakistan assistance — not because it’s doing a bad job, on nuclear safety and custodial arrangements.

They’re working hard at it. A lot of people give them credit for doing a good job. But as we all know, after September 11th, it’s not sufficient to do a good job. We all have to do a better job. Every country that holds on to nuclear materials has to do a better job.

We’re offering Pakistan assistance that is consistent with our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. We’re offering Pakistan, according to our Secretary of State, help with personnel reliability programs to provide best practices. Are lessons learned? We’ve had more time in the company of nuclear weapons than Pakistan has.

I’m hopeful that General Musharraf will be able to say yes, not because he’s doing a bad job but because he knows, as do we all, that we all need to do a better job.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you all very much.