The second Nuclear Security Summit held at Seoul last week was high on rhetoric and short on substance. Though nearly 50 countries attended the summit and discussed way and means of trying try to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, the event was overshadowed by the likelihood of a North Korean launch of a ballistic missile in weeks as well as the US President’s off the record comments telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that the sensitive issue of European missile defense could not be fully addressed in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Though the South Korean government has suggested that the summit did “yield practical outcomes to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism,” the final communiqué issued at the end of the summit made no reference to either Iran or North Korea, the two nations that are challenging the very foundations of the global nuclear order. Moreover, there was no discussion at all of the elephant in the room when it comes to nuclear terrorism – the possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists as the governing institutions in Pakistan get weaker by the day.
For long, the US and the west have viewed nuclear weapons in South Asia with dread because of the possibility that a conventional war between India and Pakistan might escalate into a nuclear one. Bill Clinton called the Kashmir conflict "the most dangerous flashpoint on earth" precisely because of this fear of a nuclear holocaust in the Indian sub-continent.

Indian and Pakistani officials, on the other hand, have continued to argue that just as the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction resulted in a "hot peace" between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, nuclear weapons in South Asia will also have a stabilizing impact. They point out the fact that despite several provocations, India and Pakistan have behaved "rationally" during various crises by keeping their conflicts limited and avoiding escalation.

But since 11 September 2001, the nature of problem for the west has changed in so far as the threat is now more of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal being used against the west by radical Islamists if they can lay their hands on it.

The present turmoil in Pakistan has once again raised concerns about the safety, security and command and control of its nuclear stockpile. Though Pakistan's government continues to dismiss media reports that its nuclear weapons were in danger of falling into the "wrong hands" as "inspired," and stressed that Pakistan provided the highest level of institutionalized protection to its strategic assets, the credibility of such claims remains open to question.

Instituted in 2000, Pakistan's nuclear command and control arrangements are centered on the National Command Authority, which comprises the Employment Control Committee, the Development Control Committee and the Strategic Plans Division. Only a small group of military officials apparently have access to the country's nuclear assets.

However, these command and control arrangements continue to be beset with some fundamental vulnerabilities that underline the reluctance of the Pakistani military to cede control over the nation's nuclear assets to civilian leaders.

It is instructive to note that of all the major nuclear states in world, Pakistan is the only country where the nuclear button is in the hands of the military. Moreover, senior civilian and military officials responsible for these weapons have a problematic track-record in maintaining close control over them. AQ Khan was the head of the Pakistani nuclear program (and a veritable national hero) but was instrumental in making Pakistan the center of the biggest nuclear proliferation network by leaking technology to states far and wide including Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistani nuclear scientists have even traveled to Afghanistan at the behest of Osama bin Laden.

While its is true that the Pakistani military remains largely professional and perhaps the only the cohesive force in the country today, it has also become deeply demoralized, reflected in the large number of soldiers preferring to surrender to the militants rather than fight. There are growing signs of fraying loyalties in the Pakistani army, underlining the danger to its cohesiveness.

The growing "Islamization" of the younger generation of Pakistani military officers is well-recorded. Given the close links between the Pakistani military and intelligence services and the militant groups fighting in Kashmir and the Taliban, it is not far-fetched to assume that there is a real danger of elements within Pakistan's military-intelligence complex colluding with radical Islamist groups.

Pakistan has accepted US help since 9/11 in designing its system of controls for its nuclear arsenal and the prevention of theft. The US has reportedly spent about US$100 million in helping Pakistan secure its nuclear arsenal, and some reports have suggested that Pakistan has also received technical assistance from the US.

Throughout the Cold War years, it was viewed as politically prudent in the west and especially in the US to ignore Pakistan's drive towards nuclear acquisition, as Pakistan was seen as an important ally of the west in countering the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Nuclear proliferation has never been a first order priority for the US when it comes to Pakistan. Now the chickens are coming home to roost as the Pakistani military seems unable and unwilling to take on the Islamist forces gathering momentum on Pakistani territory on the one hand; while on the other, the nation's nuclear weapons seem within reach of the extremist forces. The turmoil in Pakistan and all its attendant consequences in the nuclear realm point to the long-term costs of short-sighted policies - the politics of proliferation - followed by the west in countering proliferation.

(The writer is Reader in International Relations, King's College London)