It is 10 years since Pakistan’s atomic tests. But there is none of the chest-thumping, trumpet-blowing nuclear triumphalism of a decade ago. As the country reels under almost daily bomb blasts and suicide attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, the mood is downbeat. Only a few fibreglass models of the Chaghi nuclear test site remain from yesteryears, and schoolchildren no longer wear free badges embellished with little mushroom clouds. Missile replicas, once prominent in public squares and major intersections, are almost gone.

Nevertheless, nuclear weapons are not on the way out in South Asia. India’s enthusiasm for the bomb remains high and drives the subcontinent’s nuclear race. In spite of remarkably good relations currently, the two adversaries are frantically producing more fissile materials and warheads, as well as extending, improving, and testing their intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

That’s not how it was supposed to be. Pro-establishment analysts in India and Pakistan, in a surprising show of solidarity, had long pooh-poohed the notion of nuclear racing. South Asians were not, they said, like the dumb, compulsive Soviets and Americans who had produced an unimaginable 70,000 nukes at the peak. At a conference in Chicago in 1992, the hawkish Indian strategist, K Subramanyam, snapped at me that ‘arms racing is a Cold War concept invented by the Western powers and totally alien to sub-continental thinking’.

‘You can die crossing the street or you could die in a nuclear war. You’ve got to die someday anyway’

Minimal deterrence was the mantra of those days. The late General K Sunderji, chief of India’s army, loved nukes. But he also insisted that a few was plenty: India needed only a dozen or so Hiroshima-sized city-busters, and so did Pakistan! In a chance encounter in 1995, when I introduced myself to him as a Pakistani nuclear physicist, his eyes lit up. He hugged me warmly, insisting that a happy Pakistan must have nukes. I did not have the heart to tell him that I wanted all nukes to be done away with. One wonders if Sunderji might be sad knowing that tactical nuclear war-fighting, which he considered sinfully escalatory, is now part of current Indian and Pakistani military doctrine...

The story of Pakistani nuclear weapons goes back to the defeat of West Pakistan by India in 1971 when East Pakistan, aided by India, separated after a bloody civil war to become Bangladesh. A year later, the Prime Minister of a truncated Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, called a meeting of Pakistani nuclear scientists in the city of Multan to map out a nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan lacked a strong technological base, but its secret search of the world’s industrialized countries for nuclear weapons technologies was successful. After 1979, as the front-line state in the fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets, Pakistan was to feel little pressure from the US. By 1986, with the help of centrifuge technology surreptitiously brought in from Belgium and Holland by Dr AQ Khan, Pakistan had its first atom bomb.

The US response was a series of flips and flops. As a reward for Pakistan’s anti-Soviet efforts, US economic and military assistance continued flowing. It was only after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988 that Washington toughened its stance on Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

Then came the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998. Initially reluctant to test, Pakistan was forced over the hill by belligerent statements from Indian leaders. Diffidence soon turned into aggressive triumphalism. Countering India’s nukes became secondary. Pakistan would see its weapons as a talisman, able to ward off all dangers.

Breathtaking adventurism followed. Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf sent non-uniformed troops along with Islamist militant fighters across the Line of Control in Kashmir to seize strategic positions in the high mountains of the Kargil area. Pakistan’s nuclear shield would make an Indian response impossible, he reasoned. The subsequent war of 1999 may be recorded by historians as the first actually caused by nuclear weapons.

But, as India counter-attacked and Pakistan stood diplomatically isolated, it agreed to an immediate withdrawal, shedding all earlier pretensions that Pakistan’s army had no control over the attackers. Despite this defeat, Pakistan insisted that it had prevailed and that its nuclear weapons had deterred India from crossing the Line of Control or the international border.

The comfort of nukes, and a dawning realization that Kashmir could not be liberated by force, was to free the army from its hard life in the trenches. Its attention turned instead towards the pursuit of private wealth. This may explain why Pakistan has the world’s richest generals today.

A crisis soon followed. After 11 September 2001, Musharraf’s military government insisted there was no danger of any of its nuclear weapons being taking for a ride, but it wasn’t taking any chances. The Americans, or some disaffected radical Islamic group, were seen as potential hijackers. Several weapons were airlifted to safer, isolated locations.

Tensions rose in December 2001 after an attack on the Indian parliament by Islamic militants, whom India accused Pakistan of having backed. Nuclear threats started flying in all directions. In May 2002 – as fighter aircraft circled Islamabad – in a public debate with me, the former chief of Pakistan’s army General Mirza Aslam Beg declared: ‘We can make a first strike, and a second strike, or even a third.’ The lethality of nuclear war left him unmoved. ‘You can die crossing the street,’ he observed, ‘or you could die in a nuclear war. You’ve got to die some day anyway.’

Defused by intense Western diplomatic efforts, the crisis eventually faded. Warring with India had begun to look improbable, thanks to the army’s ‘crown jewels’. Nuclear weapons were seen as anchors of stability, or perhaps magic amulets for warding off the evil eye.

*Into the hands of extremists*

But today these crown jewels are in danger again – even if the military is unwilling to admit it. Earlier this year, as jihadists set off bomb blasts aimed at both the military and civilians, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei said: ‘I fear that chaos, or an extremist regime, could take root in that country which has 30 to 40 warheads.’ He expressed fear that ‘nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of extremist groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan’.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry swiftly condemned ElBaradei’s remarks as ‘unwarranted and irresponsible’, darkly referring to campaigns orchestrated against Pakistan because ‘we are a developing country and we are a Muslim country’. Newspaper editorials and columnists agreed. Pakistan’s largest Urdu daily, Jang, accused him of joining the chorus to ‘establish Pakistan as an irresponsible state’ while The Nation said Baradei had ‘toed the American line’ and compromised his dignity and neutrality. The daily Ausaf ran a headline urging the entire nation rally together to save its nuclear weapons. Without them, it argued, Pakistan would forever be at the mercy of India, Israel and America.

The strongest claims for safety come from the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), the part of the Pakistani military tasked with handling nuclear weapons. Its officers are in close contact with Washington, and the SPD was a key beneficiary of a secret $100 million grant to make Pakistan’s nuclear weapons safer from the Bush administration. Military officers receive training in gadgetry designed to prevent unauthorized use, and to improve storing and custodial procedures, perimeter security and personnel reliability.

The SPD exudes confidence that it can safely protect nuclear weapons, even from Islamic militants. So does Musharraf. Asked by Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria if he thought Pakistan’s nukes were safe, Musharraf replied ‘Absolutely. [The SPD] is like an army unit. Can one rifle be taken away from an army unit? I challenge anyone to take a bullet, a weapon, away from an army unit.’

It was a bad challenge to make. Just two weeks later, Taliban militants ambushed a convoy and captured four military trucks on the Indus Highway. Some carried ammunition, while others were transporting military vehicles fitted with sophisticated communications and listening technology. The trucks were recovered a week later – minus their cargo. More significantly, a score of suicide attacks in the past few months, some bearing a clear insider signature, have rocked an increasingly demoralized military and intelligence establishment. An attack on a Pakistan Air Force bus near Sargodha, where nuclear weapons are stored, killed 8 and seriously injured 40. It was masterminded by retired army major, Ahsanul Haq. He was associated with warriors who had fought Pakistan’s covert jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Today, some parts of the military and intelligence are at war with other parts.

*Fighting shadows*

Fearful of more attacks, military officers have limited their wearing of uniforms, move in civilian cars, and no longer flaunt their rank in public. They yearn for the days when the enemy was India, but now they must fight shadows. A senior military officer recently confided in me that he feels especially vulnerable when held up by traffic lights at an intersection. An army in such shape does not inspire confidence in its ability to safeguard nukes.

There are many questions but few answers. Would it be possible for different commanders, each with authorization for different parts of a nuclear weapon, to collude and successfully hijack a working weapon? Could jihadist outsiders develop links with sympathetic custodial insiders?

Will radical Islamists acquire the technical expertise, and the highly enriched uranium, needed for a crude nuclear device? Such a weapon could be built secretly in situ. In Pakistan’s weapons laboratories, religious fervour has grown enormously over the past three decades. Given the absence of accurate records of fissile material production, can one be certain that small quantities of highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium have not already been diverted?

There is little doubt that if extremists succeed in getting nuclear materials, they will not hesitate in using them. One should not assume that London or New York will be the targets; Islamabad and Delhi may be just as good – and certainly much easier. In the twisted logic of the fanatics, there is little or no difference between apostates and those who are the tools of apostates. The suicide bombings in mosques and public meetings send exactly this message. As yet there is little realization that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons may be even more dangerous to itself than to other countries.

*Pervez Hoodbhoy* is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Physics, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.