Pakistani nuclear weapons

Written by Sarmad Ishfaq 8:19 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content

Propaganda Against Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: From “Islamic Bomb” to Biden’s Comments

For decades, the West has had its eyes set on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, going as far as to stir up paranoia against it. The recent statement by President Joe Biden is just another notch in America’s extensive propaganda campaign against Pakistan. Sarmad Ishfaq points out the fallacies in the West’s perceived notion of Pakistan’s nuclear insecurity. He highlights how Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure and in turn proves that the countries questioning Pakistan have many nuclear-related issues themselves.
About the Author(s)
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Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, the Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.

Background of the Bomb

The Pakistani nuclear endeavor commenced due to two major events, namely the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 and India’s nuclear weapons test in 1974. It had therefore become an existential matter for the country to obtain nuclear weapons as swiftly as possible.

The country’s nuclear development plan began under the auspices of populist leader Zulfiqar Bhutto in 1972. The Bhutto government enlisted the late Pakistani legend, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, to expedite the process as well as contribute to the production of fissile material. These nuclear ambitions continued after Bhutto was hanged when Zia Ul Haq ushered in a new era of martial law.

Zia, to his credit, played coy with the Americans – who were concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions – and lied to them, claiming the country harbors no such intent. After a meeting with Zia, veteran US diplomat Vernon Walters states, “Either he [Zia] really does not know or is the most superb and patriotic liar I have ever met.” The US did eventually become fully cognizant of Pakistan’s nuclear program but was forced to turn a blind eye, primarily due to the country’s pivotal role in the Afghan-Soviet War.

In 1998, under Nawaz Sharif’s government, the country conducted nuclear tests in Chagai, Balochistan announcing to the world that Pakistan had triumphantly joined the elite nuclear club. Ironically, however, Sharif was heavily opposed to testing nuclear weapons (due to America) but the pressure from within, especially from the Pakistani armed forces, was too severe to ignore. Shamshad Ahmad Khan, the then-foreign secretary, narrates, “Sharif was sweating badly…” before he eventually gave the decision to move forward with the tests. 

Pakistani nuclear weapons
Dust rising in the mountains of Balochistan during nuclear testing in 1998

Propaganda Ensues

After Pakistan became a nuclear power, the country was inexorably targeted for its nuclear capabilities. In 1979, using the Islamic revolution in Iran as well as the religiously motivated mujahedeen in Afghanistan as examples, newspapers in the West began titling Pakistan’s atomic bomb as an “Islamic bomb.” The connotation of this phrase being that this nuclear bomb transcended national borders and spanned the global Islamic community.

In other words, the belief was that one Muslim nation would share its bomb with another and this Islamophobia was being transmitted like a disease. These proclivities, however, were not true as Pakistan’s atomic ambitions were a “…nationalistic security project, not a religious one,” even though Bhutto and Zia would bring religion into it at times. Along with the West, India and Israel ramped up their propaganda, mendacious statements, hyperbole, and jingoism against the fictional pan-Islamic atomic threat.

For example, Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin wrote to his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, about the massive threat the Islamic bomb posed to the world. Thatcher replied truthfully and sagaciously that “None of the evidence currently available to us suggests there is any arrangement to transfer weapons-useable material from Pakistan to other Islamic states or organizations.” In other words, rather than being a tangible “proliferation or security threat, the Islamic bomb was a propaganda problem.”

Western think tanks and groups such as the Stimson Centre London, Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS), politicians, academics, and the mainstream media have all contributed to this culture of paranoia and propaganda perpetuated against Pakistan. The propaganda usually ranges from exaggerations surrounding the production of atomic weapons to perceived risks of these weapons falling into the hands of militants. The latter thought especially festered rapidly post-9/11.

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A few inexplicable articles and reports signify how truly paranoid and/or malicious the West really was. For example, an article penned by ISIS (the think tank) claimed that many Pakistanis were sympathetic to the Taliban and that the nukes could fall into the group’s hands. Other articles raised the possibility that Bin Laden was shopping for nukes and cast doubts on Pakistan. The writers of such outlandish articles should feel foolish for their unfounded assumptions, especially in hindsight.

In May 2004, more than 50 officials and experts from 15 countries took part in a war game exercise hosted by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and proceeded to point fingers at Pakistan – the exercise endeavored to prevent theft of Pakistani nuclear weapons at the hands of militants.

In 2007, Fredrick Kagan, the architect of the failure that was the Iraq War and ex-West Point military historian, urged the White House to consider sending elite British or US troops to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and take them to a secure facility in New Mexico due to the country’s instability. Even Hollywood joined in the act and made movies such as G.I. Joe: Retaliation in 2013, which displayed an invasion of Pakistan’s nuclear installations.

It is nonsensical to think that some facility housing Pakistani nuclear weapons will somehow be raided by militants and the nukes stolen. This sort of fictionalization might work in movies but is a pipedream in reality. Most countries, including Pakistan, keep their nuclear weapons disassembled and separate from delivery means.

Most recently, the gaffe-prone president of the US, Joe Biden, made snide remarks by labeling Pakistan as “one of the most dangerous nations in the world” and that the country has nuclear power “without any cohesion.” Maybe Mr. Biden should be reminded by his team, who usually end up correcting his faux pas anyway, that America is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in a war and has itself been at war for 92% of its existence since 1776. This makes the US the most dangerous country in the world.

The president’s abominable statements are, in my opinion, part of a larger and more sinister agenda to rid Pakistan of its atomic weapons that has been active since 1999 – but I digress.

The Khan Network and Pakistan’s Response

There is one nuclear-related controversy, however, that stains the country’s otherwise decent atomic record – known as the Khan Network. The man synonymous with Pakistani nuclear weapons, A.Q. Khan, was embroiled in a nuclear proliferation scandal. In the early 90s, the Khan network was exposed for its nuclear-related dealings with Libya. Khan subsequently admitted that his network was providing Iran, Libya, and North Korea with atomic weapons-related technical assistance. He later retracted his statements and implicated Benazir Bhutto, Mirza Aslam Beg, and General Musharraf.

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan
“File:Abdul Qadeer Khan.jpg” by Waiza Rafique is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Regardless of who was involved and what the truth was, the damage was severe and the Islamic bomb propagandists touted “we told you so.” The Islamic bomb rhetoric was conflated with this nuclear proliferation scandal – a plethora of books began depicting Pakistan as a nuclear jihadist country. This was not true. Was there a proliferation attempt? Yes. Was it motivated by religion? No, it was not.

Deliberating on the Khan Network, lecturer Malcolm M. Craig rebukes the idea of the so-called “Islamic bomb” and writes, “Again, a genuine conspiracy became tied up with conspiracy theory.” And that while there was a deliberate proliferation attempt, it was “…motivated by money, power and prestige, not religion.”

The Khan Network and 9/11 were traumatic events but a silver lining emerged – it fueled Pakistan to raise its nuclear mechanisms and institutions to new and more secure heights. During this time, Islamabad took initiatives to prevent the proliferation of nuclear-related materials and technologies such as augmented export control laws, international nuclear security cooperation programs, and improved personnel security.

Islamabad reiterated that one of its nuclear postures was that of Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD), which is meant to keep enough nuclear weapons to deter an enemy – and is a more defensive posture. Institutions such as Pakistan’s capable Strategic Plans Division (SPD), formed in 1999, were present, but things were now better streamlined.

The National Command Authority (NCA), formally established in 2000, became the apex body that oversaw employment, policy formulation, deployment, research and development, exercises, and operational command and control over Pakistani nuclear weapons. The NCA consists of the top civilian and military leadership including the prime minister and chief of army staff.

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The SPD, which functions under the NCA, is responsible for the physical protection of the Pakistani nuclear weapons for which it maintains a dedicated force. A serving three-star general heads the SPD while a serving two-star general heads its force (SPD force).

Brig (Rtd) Feroz Khan, formerly part of the SPD, and the author of the book “Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb” highlights the evolution of the country’s nuclear security culture post-9/11. He writes that the security division of the SPD created a reporting system for “monitoring the movement of all officials.” Furthermore, the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) and the Human Reliability Program (HRP) were created for employment security for both military and civilian personnel respectively.

The SPD maintains weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports in order to inhibit theft or loss. This is why Pakistan’s nuclear safeguards have been in good standing with the IAEA, and the country is a member of almost all international safety and security conventions. Pakistan’s nuclear safety progress and successes have been reflected in the NTI Nuclear Security Index’s various reports.

The latest report in 2020 applauds Pakistan as the most improved country in the theft ranking for countries with materials. It also lauds the country’s +25-point increase in Security and Control Measures and highlights this as the second-largest improvement for any country since this index first launched. The report states “Pakistan has steadily improved in the Security and Control Measures category over time with the passage of new regulations, improving by +8 in 2014, +2 in 2016, and +6 in 2018. Its score in 2014 improved owing to new regulations for on-site physical protection. In 2016, it passed new cybersecurity regulations. In 2018, it improved its insider threat protections.”

Why No Backlash against India, US, & Others?

Pakistan survived one of its worst internal situations namely the surge of religious extremism post-9/11 with civilian and military infrastructure/personnel being targeted constantly. Despite this dire situation, there was never truly a real threat to Pakistan’s nuclear assets. However, even with the security situation improving immensely due to the sacrifices of Pakistan’s Armed Forces, the perception of being an insecure nuclear power has prevailed. Sure, Pakistan is still a third-world country with a plethora of issues, but with regard to its nuclear mechanisms, the country has shown that it is a responsible nation.

The question then becomes why countries like Israel, India, and the US are not targeted for their possession of nuclear weapons despite being marred with controversies – nuclear-related and otherwise. Imagine India’s weapons being labeled as a “Hindu bomb” (especially after Modi’s arrival) or Israel’s bomb categorized as a Jewish or Zionist bomb. Whoever evokes such names would be chastised by the hypocritical mainstream media as anti-Semitic or racist.

In the last two decades, India has witnessed the theft of over 200 kgs of uranium making “…theft and illegal sale of nuclear and radioactive material in India…a recurring phenomenon.” In 2016, Indian police seized almost 9 kgs of depleted uranium. More recently in May 2021, authorities arrested two men trying to sell around 7 kgs of uranium. Then on 4 June 2021, India arrested seven men for illegal possession of around 6.4 kgs of uranium.

This tells us that Indian uranium reserves and nuclear facilities are not secure, as theft has become commonplace, and secondly, that the country is not properly adhering to “international bindings of nuclear safety and security such as UN resolution 1540…” The more audacious aspect of such negligence is that the international media has hardly made any objections in response to such events. If a fraction of this kind of theft had taken place in Pakistan, all hell would have broken loose.

Furthermore, India’s internal security situation is not ideal. There are dozens of armed Indian separatist movements such as the ones in Kashmir, Punjab (Khalistan), Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, Bodoland, and so on. It is facing an ongoing border issue with China, which has occasionally turned violent in recent years.

Since Modi became prime minister, the country has experienced a deep schism between its Hindu majority and the sizeable Muslim minority (as well as Christians and Sikhs). Communal violence and rioting are becoming everyday occurrences in the so-called largest democracy in the world. From the protests in Indian Occupied Kashmir owing to the revocation of articles 35A and 370 to the controversial Civil Amendment Act, the country has witnessed massive protests in the last few years.

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I would also be remiss if I did not share that according to the last NTI Nuclear Security Index report (2020), Pakistan has outranked India in the “Theft: Secure Materials” index as well as in the “Sabotage: Protect Facilities” index where Pakistan ranked 33 compared to India at 38. However, Pakistan finds itself perennially blamed while India is immune from any accountability whatsoever.

Coming to America now. Let us pick the low-hanging fruit first; it is ironic that America, which portrays itself as infallible, is the only country to have employed nukes in a war and then selectively ostracizes countries that possess atomic weapons such as Pakistan and North Korea. The country has been warring with others for most of its existence and has also been a part of countless destabilization endeavors, assassinations, regime changes, coups, and sabotage globally.

More recently, its epic misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its proxy wars in Syria and Libya are proof of how one nation has destabilized the MENA region. America’s cognitive dissonance vis-à-vis atomic weapons is also glaringly apparent in how favorably it treats Israel – a known nuclear power and one of the worst human rights abusers in the world – and how it treats Pakistan in contrast for example.

With respect to its own nuclear weapons, I was amazed to have discovered a shocking fact, which I have never even heard once on the mainstream media i.e. the US has lost 6 nuclear weapons that have never been recovered. One such incident transpired in 1996 when a B-52 and a KC-135 refueling tanker “collided over southern Spain and scattered four B-28 thermonuclear bombs around the fishing village of Palomares.”

More horrifically, there have been 32 “broken arrow” incidents since 1950 – these incidents are defined “…as an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that result in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss of the weapon.” Two of these broken arrow incidents have contaminated a wide area with radioactive material. So much for accountability. The rules remain different for the US and its true allies juxtaposed to Pakistan, Iran, North Korea etcetera.

I wanted to add details about Israel here as well but the article would become too bloated I fear. You get the point, however.

Final thoughts

This propaganda against countries such as Pakistan, in my opinion, is part of a grand conspiracy where the US and Israel want our nukes gone. Any and every country that has been a threat to Israel or US’s ambitions has been neutralized or is in the process thereof – Iraq, Iran, Russia, Syria, Lebanon, Venezuela, Libya, North Korea, and Pakistan.

“No Exit from Pakistan” authored by Daniel Markey confirms that one of the primary reasons the US must keep engaging with Pakistan is due to the latter’s nuclear arsenal. This propaganda, again, in my opinion, will crescendo and will ultimately culminate in a demand to Pakistan by Western powers to relinquish its nukes for debt relief and monetary gain.

Pakistan’s economic situation currently is dire and the political situation is perhaps worse – this is and will be leveraged by the world’s elites via the IMF and other actors. Despite Pakistan’s tight security over its atomic weapons, this propaganda will not stop because the end game of the West is to achieve a nuclear-free Pakistan. Therefore, the US president’s statements were deliberate, calculated, and aptly timed.

Pakistan must become indomitable in the face of these machinations, no matter how unyielding. Ukraine is the biggest example for Pakistan to never relinquish its nuclear weapons. Bhutto famously remarked that Pakistan will make its atomic bomb even if its citizens have to eat grass – let us then affirm that we will also never surrender our nuclear weapons even if we have to eat grass.


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