On February 2, 2000, Pakistan’s National Security Council (NSC), chaired by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, set up a National Command Authority (NCA) to co-ordinate and control policy-making relating to nuclear weapons. It consisted of an Employment Control Committee, a Development Control Committee and a Strategic Plans Division to act as the Secretariat of the NCA.
The Employment Control Committee was chaired by the head of the government and included the Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Chairman), Defence and the Interior, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), the three Service Chiefs and the Director-General of the Strategic Plans Division, who acted as its Secretary. The Chairman was empowered to co-opt technical and other advisers.
The Development Control Committee was also chaired by the head of the government and included the CJCSC (Deputy Chairman), the three Service Chiefs, the Director-General of the Strategic Plans Division and representatives of strategic organisations and the scientific community. This Committee controlled the development of strategic assets. Political personalities holding important Cabinet posts were excluded from it.
The Strategic Plans Division, headed by a senior army officer, was established in the Joint Services Headquarters under the CJCSC to act as the Secretariat for the NCA and perform functions relating to planning, coordination, and establishment of a reliable command, control, communication, computers and intelligence network.
The security division of the NCA was made responsible not only for the physical security of the assets and installations, but also for personnel security. It now reportedly has more than 10,000 personnel and is headed by a three-star General. It has a personnel reliability programme (PRP) directorate.
The NCA thus constituted functioned for over seven years without any legislative authority. Just before the elections to the National Assembly held in the beginning of 2008, Musharraf promulgated an ordinance called the NCA Ordinance 2007 on December 13, 2007, which sought to give it the required legislative authority. This was one of the many ordinances issued by Musharraf, which remained unapproved by the two Houses of the Parliament when he left office and was succeeded by Asif Ali Zardari as the President in 2008.
Earlier in 2009, this ordinance came up for consideration by a 17-member committee of the newly-elected National Assembly (NA) headed by the Chairperson of the NA Standing Committee on Defence Azra Fazal Pechuho, who incidentally is the sister of President Asif Ali Zardari.
Contrary to the widespread public speculation on the subject, neither the charter of the NCA as laid down when Musharraf was in power nor the subsequent proceedings in the
Committee of the NA and then in the NA itself dealt with the question of who will have the ultimate power to press the nuclear button in case of a war with an adversary. From the beginning in the days of Zia-ul-Haq, the army had made it clear that the nuclear button would be under its control and was not prepared to share this control with any elected political leader—whether he or she be the head of state or government.
When Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won the elections of 1988 after the death of Zia-ul-Haq, the Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agreed to let her become the Prime Minister only after she agreed to let herself be excluded from all decision-making in nuclear-related matters. The army insisted that it would report directly to the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in nuclear matters and not to her and she had to agree to it.
During her two terms as the Prime Minister (1988-90 and 1993-96) and during his first term as the Prime Minister (1990-93), neither Benazir nor Nawaz was in a position to over-rule the army in nuclear matters because the then Presidents had the power to dismiss the Prime Minister and they were afraid that if they decided to be assertive in nuclear matters, the army might pressure the President to dismiss them. This fear disappeared in 1996 when Nawaz won a two-third majority in the elections to the National Assembly. He used this majority to abolish the powers of the President to dismiss the Prime Minister. Thereafter, he tried to be more assertive in nuclear matters. His desire that the elected Prime Minister should co-ordinate the decision-making process in nuclear matters became one of the bones of contention between him and Musharraf, who was then the Chief of the Army Staff. He was reportedly taken by surprise when the Americans allegedly informed him that at the height of the Kargil conflict, Musharraf had alerted the nuclear forces on his own without keeping Nawaz in the picture.
After seizing power in October 1999, Musharraf ensured that whatever be the set-up of the NCA and whoever chaired it, the final decision in all nuclear-related matters would be taken by him and not by his Prime Minister—initially Zulfiquar Ali Magsi and then Shaukat Aziz, who succeeded Magsi. Musharraf also re-introduced the 17th Amendment of the Constitution of 1973 under which the President has the power to dismiss the elected Prime Minister and dissolve the National Assembly.
Zardari inherited from Musharraf the powers assumed by him in respect of the dismissal of the Prime Minister and the dissolution of the National Assembly. He also inherited Musharraf’s powers relating to the NCA. Nawaz Sharif and other leading political leaders belonging to parties other than the PPP have been demanding that the 17th Amendment should again be abolished. While accepting this ostensibly in principle, Zardari has been avoiding it by taking advantage of the fact that no party has a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to be able to implement this.
After Zardari took over as the President in 2008, the powers and methods of functioning of the NCA became a subject of international concern because of growing fears over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. What concerned the US was not so much as to who will have control over the nuclear button in case of a war, but as to who will be responsible for the security of the nuclear arsenal. This concern over the security of the arsenal had become magnified after the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the various other Punjabi jihadi organisations commonly referred to as the Punjabi Taliban stepped up their activities after the Lal Masjid raid of July, 2007 and after the TTP started attacking the security forces.
The emergence of the Lashkar-e-
Toiba (LeT) as a terrorist organisation with capabilities on par with Al Qaeda—as demonstrated by the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist strike— increased these concerns even more. In the past, the US concerns regarding the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal were mainly related to the reported attempts of Al-Qaeda to acquire weapons of mass destruction material. After Mumbai 26/11, the US is increasingly concerned over likely threats to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from organisations such as the TTP and the LeT and others of Pakistani origin.
Reports of the infiltration of the Pakistani armed forces by these organisations—as demonstrated by the alleged involvement of junior and middle-level air force and army personnel in the two attempts to kill Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December 2003—created fears of such infiltration into Pakistan’s nuclear set-up and into the division under the NCA responsible for the physical security of the nuclear arsenal.
The post-2003 discussions between the US and Pakistani officials on the security of the nuclear arsenal focussed attention not only on the physical security of the arsenal in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of terrorists, but also on preventing the infiltration of the nuclear set-up by the terrorist organisations in order to obtain nuclear and other technologies.
As a result of these concerns, the major part of the discussions in the 17-member committee came to be devoted not to the question of the control over the nuclear button, but to the question of how to meet the US concerns over the physical security of the nuclear arsenal and over the dangers of the infiltration of the nuclear set-up by jihadi elements.
Reflecting this change of focus, the Daily Times of Lahore wrote in an editorial as follows: ” a report of the
standing committee on defence regarding the National Command Authority (NCA) Bill 2007 has been laid before the National Assembly. The timing of the report’s presentation suggests to some observers the urgency of allaying the fears expressed by the Western media, veteran journalist Seymour Hersh’s piece in the New Yorker being only the latest significant case in point, regarding the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The greater concern is not about any external force gaining access to the arsenal. The apprehension being expressed concerns internal leakage of technology and/or the weapons themselves. The beneficiaries of such a hypothetical leakage, according to Western media reports, could be the terrorists operating within and around Pakistan. The concerns of the Western media and even some governments have to be seen in the context of the track record of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The least likely scenario would be that a weapon/s could actually be spirited away by some inimical personnel. A nuclear weapon is not a piece of candy or a lollipop that can be secreted away in a pocket to be calmly taken away under the nose of tight security. Our weapons have been dispersed and rendered impossible to use without proper authorisation precisely to pre-empt any such possibility and even prevent the accidental use of these deadly weapons. The real apprehension in the minds of those fundamentally hostile to the existence of this capability is that the very personnel charged with the responsibility to ensure their security may be infected sufficiently by jihadi ideology to consider leaking vital information and/or equipment to the terrorists currently battling against the Pakistani state. From Musharraf onwards and downwards, officials in positions of high authority have been emphasising consistently that no such threat exists or will be allowed to rear its head. While knowledgeable US officials have been saying much the same thing, the Western media seems not to be inclined to let the facts stand in the way of a good story. The proposed bill to give legal cover to the NCA would have the President as the ex-officio chairman of the Authority, with the Prime Minister as the ex-officio deputy chairman. The bill proposes to give retrospective cover to all acts by officials of the NCA committed before the bill becomes law. It seeks to institute vigilance not only against external threats but also to keep an eye on the officials and employees of the NCA to prevent any breach of security, which has been held punishable with a jail term extending up to 25 years.”
When everybody was expecting that as recommended by the 17-member committee, Zardari would take over as the Chairman of the NCA after the approval of the committee’s report by the National Assembly, he sprang a surprise on November 27, 2009, by issuing an ordinance which designated the Prime Minister as the Chairman. “Transferring the chairmanship of the National Command Authority to the Prime Minister is a giant leap forward to empowering the elected parliament and the Prime Minister,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.
Why did Zardari do so? There is no satisfactory answer to this question. According to some, it reflects the weakening position of Zardari, who is increasingly distrusted not only by the army, but also by important sections of political and public opinion because of the perception that he is amenable to American pressure. According to others, who are in the PPP, Zardari took this decision not due to political or military pressure but due to a desire to avoid getting involved in a sensitive controversy over the security of the nuclear arsenal in the light of the growing US pressure on the subject.
As is evident from the New Yorker article of Hersh, the secret US talks on the security of the nuclear arsenal are being held with the military leadership and not with the elected political leadership. Whether the NCA is chaired by the President or the Prime Minister, it is apparent that the US would like to deal directly with the army on this subject instead of through the President or the Prime Minister. Zardari has chosen to come to terms with this harsh reality as Benazir did in 1988 instead of making an issue of it which he is bound to lose if he did.