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by Pervez Hoodbhoy
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Pakistan's military government insisted that there was no danger of any of its 25 to 40 nuclear weapons being taken for a ride by some radical Islamic group. Nevertheless, it wasn't taking any chances. Several weapons were reportedly airlifted to safer, isolated locations within the country, including the northern mountainous area of Gilgit. This nervousness was not unjustified: two strongly Islamic generals of the Pakistan Army, close associates of General Musharraf, had just been removed from their positions. Dissatisfaction within the army of Pakistan's betrayal of the Taliban was (and remains) deep. Almost overnight, under intense American pressure, the Pakistani government had disowned its progeny and agreed to wage a war of annihilation against it.
Fears about Pakistan's nukes were subsequently compounded by revelations that two highly-placed members of the nuclear establishment, Syed Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhury Majid, had journeyed several times into Afghanistan during the last year. Both scientists are well known to espouse radical Islamic views, and Mahmood has been photographed with Osama Bin Laden. They are currently under intensive interrogation by Pakistani and US intelligence.
It is not impossible that the two Pakistanis could have provided significant nuclear information or materials potentially useful to Al Quaeda's allies and subsidiaries in other parts of the world. If it so turns out, this will scarcely be the first instance of leakage of nuclear information. Among other examples, sympathizers of Israel working in the US nuclear establishment were instrumental in providing large quantities of uranium during the 1960s for the Israeli nuclear weapons program.
Pakistan's loose nukes underscore a global danger that may already be out of control. The fissile materials present in the thousands of ex-Soviet bombs marked for disassembly, the vast amounts of radioactive materials present in nuclear reactors and storage sites the world over, and the abundance of nuclear knowledge make it only a matter of time before some catastrophic use is made of them.
So what is the solution? Obviously tight policing and monitoring of nuclear materials and knowledge is essential. But this is far from sufficient. If nuclear weapons continue to be accepted by nuclear states as legitimate instruments of either deterrence or war, their global proliferation - whether by other states or non state actors - can only be slowed down at best. By what moral argument can others be persuaded not to follow suit? Humanity's best chance of survival lies in creating taboos against nuclear weapons, much as already exist for chemical and biological weapons, and to work rapidly toward their global elimination. The US, as the world's only remaining superpower, must take the lead.
These are difficult times to make such an argument. The White House is celebrating victory over Al Quaeda. But terrorism does not have a military solution. Soon there may be still stronger, more dramatic proof. In the modern age, technological possibilities to wreak enormous destruction are limitless, and nuclear means are one awful possibility. Anger, when intense enough, makes small stateless groups, and even individuals, extremely dangerous.
American triumphalism must therefore give way to a more rational, long term defense of US interests and security. These ultimately lie in ameliorating conflicts and rationally dealing with complaints against its international behavior. It is time for the US to re-engage with the people of the world, especially with those it grievously harms. As a great country, possessing an admirable constitution that protects the life and liberty of its citizens, it must now extend its definition of human rights to cover all peoples of the world.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is a professor of nuclear and high energy physics at Quaid e Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.
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