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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Now Under PM
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Eric Auner

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari turned over formal control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in November amid continuing political upheaval and doubts about the future of his presidency.

Zardari’s decision to give up the chairmanship of the National Command Authority (NCA) “was not taken in isolation or under any pressure, rather [it was] meant to decentralize the powers” of the president, Press Secretary to the President Taimur Azmat Osman said in a statement quoted by the Associated Press of Pakistan, a government-run news agency. The text of the Nov. 27 ordinance implementing the decision was not available at press time.

Many analysts in the region and in the United States say the transfer will not have a significant effect on the practical control of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. In an op-ed published in Pakistan’s Daily Times, journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote that changes to the NCA would not affect the army’s control over the country’s nuclear weapons because “[c]ivilians have never controlled Pakistan’s nuclear program.” Smruti S. Pattanaik, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, wrote on the institute’s Web site, “An elected President (and now the Prime Minister) chairing the NCA gives him notional control over nuclear weapons and thus creates a sense of civilian ownership.… Such a change of guard from President to Prime Minister does not portend any major shift in civilian control over the Army.”

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the HenryL.StimsonCenter in Washington, wrote on the center’s Web site that it is unclear whether “changes in the NCA and public releases of information about them [are] helpful or harmful to nuclear stabilization on the subcontinent.”

In 2000, Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf created the NCA to oversee Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and formulate nuclear policy. The precise function and role of the NCA were clarified in the 2007 National Command Authority Ordinance. According to that ordinance, the NCA is intended to exercise “complete command and control over research, development, production and use of nuclear and space technologies…and to provide for the safety and security of all personnel, facilities, information, installations or organisations” relating to the nuclear and space programs.

According to Krepon, Musharraf’s creation of the NCA gave Pakistan “a stable, institutional structure for Pakistan’s nuclear decision making.” Zardari replaced Musharraf as president in 2008, inheriting many of the broad powers that Musharraf had claimed for himself as president.

In the 2007 NCA ordinance, the president is named as NCA chairman and the prime minister is named as vice chairman.

The transfer of nuclear authority occurred the day before the expiration of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a 2007 ordinance that had granted Zardari immunity from prosecution. The expiration of the NRO, which was declared void “ab initio,” meaning that the ordinance was not legal in the first place, by the Pakistani Supreme Court Dec. 16, has caused a political firestorm in Pakistan. The NRO had protected many important Pakistani political figures from prosecution on charges ranging from corruption to murder. Although Zardari is still immune from prosecution as president, there have been calls for him to resign. According to the Indian newspaper The Hindu, former Prime Minister and current opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has called for all NRO beneficiaries to resign, although he did not mention Zardari by name.

The NCA chairmanship is just one of the powers that Zardari has given away as part of what many observers see as a bid to maintain his troubled presidency. However, according to Rashid, “There is enormous political speculation as to whether that will satisfy the army or only embolden it to press further for Zardari’s resignation.”

In a Dec. 9 New York Times op-ed, Zardari framed the change in the context of “mov[ing] forcefully to re-establish the traditional powers of the presidency as defined in the parliamentary model on which our Constitution is based.” He said the change in nuclear leadership is “not a sign of weakness, but rather a demonstration of the vitality of Pakistani democracy.”