Nuclear fallout rocks Pakistan By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - Sharp differences between Pakistani leaders over safeguarding the
country's nuclear arsenal are placing increasing pressure on the embattled
administration of President Asif Ali Zardari.
Zardari is already seriously at odds with the military establishment over
dealing with the Taliban-led insurgency and there is a strong likelihood that
his government will face a make-or-break test within weeks in the form of mass
Pakistan has reacted strongly to an article in The New Yorker by investigative
reporter Seymour Hersh on November 16, "Defending the arsenal", in which he
claimed that Pakistan was discussing "understandings" with the US that could
even see specialists take sophisticated nuclear triggers out of the country to
from falling into the wrong hands.
The administration of President Barack Obama is clearly deeply concerned over
the safety of Pakistan's weapons, especially after militants last month entered
the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi and subjected it to a bloody
General Tariq Majid, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, said the
claims were "absurd and plain mischievous".
This might be the case, but within Pakistan, the issue of the arsenal -
estimated to contain between 80 and 100 warheads - has turned into a major
In an obvious attempt to address international concerns, the chairman of the
National Assembly's standing committee on defense, Azra Fazal Pechuho, rushed a
report of her 17-member committee into the assembly on November 11 seeking
immediate legal endorsement to the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) ordinance of
2007, which sets out a multi-layered structure for the control of the nuclear
According to this report, the president would be chairman of the authority and
the prime minister would be the deputy chairman. Other members would be the
ministers for foreign affairs, defense, finance and interior, the chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, three services chiefs and the director
general of the Strategic Planning Division.
The operational control of the nuclear weapons is currently solely in the hands
of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff Committee, General Majid.
The Nuclear Command Authority bill seeks to bring into law an ordinance from
the time of former president, General Pervez Musharraf, to strengthen control
over the country's nuclear weapons.
However, the bill was deferred by the speaker, Fehmida Mirza, on a request from
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Babar Awani, who gave no reason for the move.
Asia Times Online has learned that obstacles created by former premier, Nawaz
Sharif, led to the deferment. Sharif, leader of the opposition, apparently sees
Zardari as unreliable, and wants the authority to be headed by the prime
minister. He also urged that the leader of the opposition be a part of the NCA.
Over the past months, Zardari has become increasingly isolated. He has lost the
trust of the military, which the US now views as the power to deal with in
Pakistan, the political opposition is growing more assertive.
People close to Sharif say a mass campaign, much like the one in March that
forced the government to restore the judiciary that had been dismissed by
Musharraf, is inevitable.
The current situation is a fresh episode of an overall political imbalance that
occurred after the assassination of former premier, Benazir Bhutto, (Zardari's
wife) in December 2007 that led to the August 2008 resignation of Musharraf as
president and the election of Zardari as president in September 2008.
In just over a year, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, the army chief, has eclipsed
Zardari and he is now Washington's point man on the Pakistani side of the South
Asian war theater. The Americans believe Kiani will push relentlessly to gain
victory in the tribal areas against the Pakistan Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Significantly, the US sees Kiani as the most trusted person to protect
Pakistan's nuclear assets. Hersh wrote in his article:
consultation on nuclear security between Washington and Islamabad intensified
after the announcement in March of President Obama's so-called Af-Pak policy,
which called upon the Pakistan Army to take more aggressive action against
Taliban enclaves inside Pakistan. I was told that the understandings on nuclear
cooperation benefited from the increasingly close relationship between Admiral
Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Kayani
[Kiani], his counterpart, although the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and
the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy have also been involved.
General Majid denied parts of the article that suggested an American role in
the protection of Pakistan's arsenal, but Kiani, whose dealings were a major
discussion point in the article, did not utter a single word.
During US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Pakistan, it was
made clear that Washington's political administration also approves of Kiani.
(See US puts its
faith in Pakistan's military Asia Times Online, November 6, 2009. )
This faith in the military, rather than in any political force, comes at a time
when the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) is due to expire
on November 28 and opposition parties are ready to challenge it in court. Legal
experts are unanimous that the ordinance is discriminatory and directly clashes
with the constitution and that the judiciary will not allow it to be extended.
The NRO was promulgated in 2007 by Musharraf after a deal was brokered by
Washington and London between him and Benazir Bhutto, who at the time was the
West's preferred person to succeed Musharraf's military government. The NRO
pardoned all corruption cases pending against Benazir Bhutto and Zardari, as
well as dozens of activists of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) who had held
important positions in previous governments.
Although Zardari, as president, cannot be tried under the law, cases could be
opened against many incumbent ministers after November 28, which would be a
major setback for the Zardari government. The PPP's secretary general, Jehangir
Badr, has already warned party cadre who benefited from the NRO to obtain bail
before possibly being arrested.
The military establishment has seized the moment to hand over a list of names
to Zardari of people it believes should be immediately replaced. At the top of
the list is the ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, whom the army has
always regarded as a foe for being too close to the American administration.
Minister of the Interior Rahman Malik is second in line. Although he has been
credited with helping destroy the financial arteries of militants, he is
regarded as too close to Western intelligence agencies and he often bypasses
the military establishment in anti-terror operations.
The ministers for water and power, agriculture, health and many others are also
named in the list, accused of incompetence or corruption. Initially, Zardari
agreed to replace them, but now he is stalling.
Zardari has also indicated that he is unwilling to immediately shed his
constitutional powers, such as the right to appoint armed forces chiefs and
dissolve parliament. He has given a March 2010 date for the delegation of these
powers to the prime minister.
This is unacceptable to Zardari's main rival, Sharif, who aims to launch a
protest campaign against Zardari by mid-December. It was Sharif's campaign that
forced Zardari to restore the judiciary this March.
The military has indicated to Sharif that it won't disturb the democratic
setup, come what may; rather, it will press for the removal of people with whom
it is uncomfortable and live with a weakened Zardari. It does not want mid-term
elections in which Sharif's victory would be most likely. Although the military
has good relations with Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, it views him as too
independent and too assertive.
In these uncertain times, Musharraf has re-emerged on the scene. Asia Times
Online has learned that he is pondering the formation of a new political party
and that he recently funneled large amounts of money into the coffers of former
aides to promote his cause. These include former minister of information,
Sheikh Rasheed, whom some reports say has been paid US$1 million - the same
amount that went to a public relations team to boost Musharraf's image.
Insiders say that Musharraf has vast wealth, much of it accumulated through
donations from individuals (these, some say, include Libya's Muammar Gaddafi)
and corporations to aid previous election campaigns. There are reports that
Musharraf received US$30 million from the United Arab Emirates via one of its
top bankers, and $3 million from a Pakistani cellular phone company.
Musharraf believes that with his contacts - especially to the Saudi royal
family - and being internationally known, he could play a decisive role in the
South Asian "war on terror" theater in which the Americans are looking for new
ways to approach the Taliban for reconciliation, along with the elimination of
The militants, meanwhile, are not standing idly by.
On Tuesday evening, the Taliban chief in the Malakand Division of North-West
Frontier Province, Mullah Fazlullah, showed up in Afghanistan and confirmed a
report by Asia Times Online that Pakistani militants from Swat and Malakand -
who retreated in the face of military operations earlier this year - were
regrouping in the Afghan province of Nuristan. (See
Militants change tack in Pakistan Asia Times Online, November 18,
Fazlullah claimed that the militants would resume their insurgency in the Swat
Valley, and, ominously, he said it would coincide with the planned mass
protests against Zardari next month.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]