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EDITORIAL: It comes as something of a breath of fresh air that US non-proliferation watchdog Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has found Pakistan to be the "most improved country" in the world for 2020 in terms of nuclear materials security. It turns out that Pakistan achieved the coveted status after improving its overall score by seven points and finished one rank ahead of India. According to the watchdog's report, the country's best improvement came in the Security and Control Measures category, which increased by 25 points, because of the passage of new laws and regulations. But the progress has been steady and some years in the making, improving first by eight points in 2014, then by two points in 2016 and then by six points in 2018. These are the fruits of introducing new regulations for on-site physical protection, passing new cyber-security regulations, and improving what is called insider threat protection. The report also notes that Pakistan's +25 score in this category is the second-largest improvement of any country since the Index was first launched in 2012. Significantly, Pakistan also showed the most improvement in the theft ranking category for countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials. All in all, strengthened laws and regulations resulted in durable boosts in Pakistan's score and also provided sustainable security benefits, the report concluded.

But all this is only half the story. Pakistan has emerged as the most improved country at a time when progress on global nuclear security has slowed down considerably. "Progress on protecting nuclear materials against theft and nuclear facilities against acts of sabotage has slowed significantly over the past two years," it explained. Apparently, this has happened after continuous improvement from 2012-2018, which is leading some analysts to believe that success in the war against terrorism made some countries take their eye off the ball. And it is now clear that in all the years that the world was improving its nuclear safety regime and criticising Pakistan for all sorts of lack of control and oversight, we were in fact in the process of implementing top-notch safety protocols. Now the days when world powers sweated over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, or when even the most trusted international news outlets ran stories about the possibility of outfits like al Qaeda acquiring some of Pakistan's nukes, should be behind us forever. And it says something indeed that the most persistent voice in the region that worried about Pakistan's nuclear situation, India, is now one point behind in the only international study that scrutinises all nuclear powers and is trusted across the world.

This report is indeed a testament to the high standards incorporated by the government and the armed forces. These years when Pakistan took such extraordinary steps to fine tune its nuclear safety mechanism were the years when the country was suffering from all sorts of problems on all fronts. There was effectively a mini war-on-terror going on inside the country. Foreign as well as local investors were fleeing in droves. The economy was collapsing. Yet the government made sure that the country's strategic assets, its final deterrent against all external aggression, were not just safe but that their safety was constantly improved. Yet it's not as if all has been accomplished and there's nothing left to be done. The report also identified key steps that still need to be taken to fill existing gaps. These include yet more stringent control and accounting measures, requiring security culture assessments, ratifying the International Convention for Suppression of Nuclear Terrorism, and taking voluntary steps to support the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And while progress on these issues will hopefully also be forthcoming, the steps that remain are clearly not as significant for nuclear safekeeping as the steps already taken.

This should win Pakistan some precious points in the international security realm. Already the foreign press is full of praise for Pakistan for having improved its nuclear safety mechanism when global standards are generally declining. The Americans, who once famously had a fallback plan "to secure Pakistan's nukes in case the country goes to the dogs", must also now be revising their estimates. There is, at the end of the day, no better way to silence all critics than to improve your own game. And that is just what Pakistan is doing on the nuclear safety front.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020