By Raj Rajneesh
Recent killing of Salman Taseer, Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, by one of his own security guards, apparently in connivance with other guards on duty, and President Asif Zardari’s reported request to Washington that he be provided American security, have revived fears of safety of the country’s nuclear arsenal. How can Pak nuclear assets be secure when its security forces are being permeated with Islamist fundamentalists?
The Zardari request for American safety net may sound bizarre to the uninitiated but makes perfect sense when viewed against the backdrop certain developments Taseer’s assassination including. The Pakistani president had opted for a UN probe into the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, when she was on the comeback trail in the heart of Rawalpindi. And when the report came in, he was in the awkward position of rejecting it for the simple reason that the probe had pointed the needle of suspicion towards some in the holy cows of Pakistani establishment and the establishment was in no mood to oblige the supreme commander of armed forces.
Zardari is also loath to forget that one of the factors that had made Benazir the target of her killers was her open statement expressing readiness to let the Pakistani nuclear black-market syndicate face the IAEA and the Western agencies. Pakistani regime had denied such a facility after the father of Pakistani bomb AQ Khan was granted amnesty and ‘freedom’ to live in peace.
Asif Zardari hopes to convince the US of his request during his latest visit to Washington. He sees a parallel with the situation Hamid Karzai had faced in the early days of his the Afghan Presidency. There were as many as four major attempts on Karzai’s life and in each instance, the attackers received inside help – in one case from a police captain and in another instance from an army officer.
The Taseer assassination has also exposed the inside help. The reason for the killing, as admitted by the killer Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of elite police group, was the Governor’s support to a Christian woman charged with violating blasphemy laws, punishable with death sentence for allegedly insulting Prophet Mohammed. Taseer also had demanded amendments to the laws to prevent their misuse against minorities. The assassin told his interrogators that he was inspired by Mufti Hanif Qureshi Qadri, the Ameer of Rawalpindi-based Shabab-e-Islami Pakistan, who had preached that Salman Taseer was worth killing for labelling the blasphemy law a black law.
And to Zardari’s dismay, Taseer’s assassin, Qadri had a stint in the President’s security
Malik Qadri fired twenty seven times at his victim and surprisingly none of the other guards on duty did respond until the assassin surrendered himself. Qadri seemed to have support not only among the guards but also in the police headquarters of Rawalpindi. The head of the CPO office and four other police officials of the department have been transferred as it was believed that they were sympathizers of Qadri and were using their influence to obstruct the investigation of the late governor’s killer.
Qadri belonged to an elite commando force, recruitment to which was said to be done after intense vetting. He was earlier graded as security risk and despite it; he managed to get posted on VVIP security duties. If Islamist fundamentalists could manipulate security vetting to reach such sensitive positions, next natural apprehension is their ability to reach nuclear weapons.
These apprehensions were amply brought out in the recent WikiLeaks disclosures, which includes a secret cable from former US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson to the State Department. She wrote in her cable dated February 4, 2009, “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GOP (Government of Pakistan nuclear) facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”
Another WikiLeaks release said, “Despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.” Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) Chairman announced earlier this month that they were planning to set up several more nuclear reactors of 1000 MW capacity. Pakistan does not have enough trained manpower either to man these reactors or secure the nuclear material.
The Foreign Policy magazine has published a survey that highlights the apprehensions of common American citizens on Pakistan’s nuclear safety. “As the violence rises in Pakistan, Americans are increasingly worried about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals; 87 per cent in a poll this year said this issue concerned them.”
These are not baseless apprehensions as several incidents came to light in recent months about regular military and para-military personnel defecting to join al-Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist groups. Aqeel alias Dr. Usman, a militant commander who led a group of nine militants to attack the highly fortified headquarters of the army in Rawalpindi in 2009, was once associated with the Army.
A Taliban fighter who was killed in the Helmand province of Afghanistan was identified as a Pakistani Army officer. While one of the suicide bombers was a paratrooper of the Frontier Constabulary, a Commissioner of troubled Malakand division of the North-Western tribal region was removed on the charge of aiding and abetting the Taliban. Not long ago, a suicide bomber blasted his explosives at a junction close to the Kahuta nuclear power plant.
Islamic fundamentalism is fast spreading across the Pakistani society which was amply demonstrated by lawyers and religious parties giving a ‘heroic’ welcome to Malik Qadri when he was brought to the court. Almost none of the country’s top leaders were willing to attend Taseer’s funeral or condemn his killing. The Federal Government, fearing further implications, succumbed quickly and announced that they had no plans of amending the blasphemy law. The Army has not uttered a word.
While investigations are still continuing on the existence of remnants of the A.Q. Khan’s nuclear Wal-Mart, the prospects of nuclear arsenals in the hands of Islamist terrorist groups is a nightmare to security agencies across the world.
And for the political leadership of the country it is a Catch -22: on the one hand they cannot publicly disown the security system and hope to survive and on the other hand breathe easily knowing fully well that the loyalty and sincerity of the security apparatus is heavily tilted towards the fundamentalist Islamist forces, who have their own grand visions.