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The Nuclear Dimension of Cyber Threats

Dmitry Stefanovich

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The subject of the interrelation of threats in the fields of information and communication technologies and nuclear weapons is gradually becoming one of the dominant topics in current international security issues. In early summer 2019, a group of researchers working under the auspices of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) presented the Russian version of the “Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age” report prepared by the Cyber-Nuclear Weapons Study Group (hereinafter referred to as the NTI Report). Russian assessments of the proposals put forward by American experts may contribute to finding constructive solutions that may be ultimately transferred to international communication platforms.

Understanding the Threats

The NTI Report is structured very logically and succinctly. The authors give specific examples using formalized scenarios and demonstrate the practical dimension of specific threats and their consequences. This is followed by concrete proposals. On the whole, this approach is conducive to understanding the essence of certain phenomena and is useful both for experts in the area under consideration and for the general public. Moreover, one would like to think that decision-makers in various countries will be interested in the problems considered.

The authors considered four “illustrative scenarios”:

Scenario 1: Warning systems provide false indications of a nuclear attack during a crisis.

Scenario 2: A cyberattack disrupts communications between officials, operators and nuclear systems, and/or international counterparts in a potential crisis.

Scenario 3: An adversary introduces a flaw or malevolent code into nuclear weapons through the supply chain or otherwise in a way that could compromise the effectiveness of those weapons

Scenario 4: An adversary is able to achieve unauthorized control of a nuclear weapon through cyber-assisted theft and/or defeating of security devices.

These scenarios look quite realistic. We will not go into detailed descriptions (or, more precisely, retellings) of them. A brief summary is given in Figure 1.

At the same time, we will note that each scenario has an element of simplification, which is generally justified from the point of view of the research objectives. An important clarification should be made, at least for the first scenario. An early warning system comprises many elements, and it is highly improbable that the decision to deliver a retaliatory strike will be made on the basis of a single sub-system. The probability of the “entire set” malfunctioning or being hacked and providing the exact same information appears to be very low. At the same time, when nuclear powers are in a crisis that has an obvious military aspect to it, the threat of a hastily made decision will also increase.

A Search for Solutions

The authors of the NTI Report propose the following three guiding principles that should be taken into account when developing approaches to minimizing the risk of cyber threats against nuclear weapons:

  1. The United States will continue to require a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons remain a central element of its security strategy.
  2. Technical measures alone are unable to completely eliminate the cyber threat to nuclear weapons.
  3. The cyber challenge is global, and a unilateral approach is not sufficient.

These principles appear to be quite sound and constructive. Item 1 is certainly reasonable for Russia and for other nuclear powers.

Maybe such statements should be also reflected in bilateral (or even multilateral) declarations on international security issues and strategic stability. Naturally, conditions should emerge first for such declarations.

The experts make several very specific proposals, which are grouped as follows:

reducing the risk of launch as a result of miscalculation;

reducing risks to the nuclear deterrent;

reducing the risk of unauthorized use;

taking a global approach to the cyber threat to nuclear weapons systems.

On the whole, this approach seems logical, but the feasibility of these proposals is questionable.

Certainly, the key task shared by all nuclear powers is to guarantee the impossibility of accidentally interfering with nuclear weapons and related infrastructure through information and communication technologies. What is problematic is the attitude of various states to interference that is deliberate, i.e. intentionally carried out by government services against probable adversaries. This contradiction sharply limits the room for joint action to minimize threats.

In particular, the recommendation contained in the NTI Report on bilateral and multilateral steps towards developing certain new rules of behaviour in cyberspace are unlikely to be fully implemented. This is primarily due to one of the key features of cyber weapons: the impossibility of reliably ascertaining the adversary’s target, even if the malware itself has been detected. Identical cyber weapons can be used to collect information and interfere with the systems into which the malware has been introduced.

Unilateral and Multilateral Approaches

At the same time, much can be done in the context of unilateral measures to minimize cyber threats.

It would seem that the most important task in this area is the training of qualified military personnel for the nuclear forces. Excellent knowledge of relevant weapons and military equipment, as well as the rules of operation in any situation and basic “digital hygiene” will evidently contribute to the overall reduction of threats.

Comprehensive rules and regulations for protecting equipment from external interference already exist. However, given that individual components are purchased from foreign manufacturers (this problem is relevant for both Russia and the United States), there is still danger of hardware implants. Let us hope that personnel of the relevant departments in the military and the special services have the necessary qualifications to detect such threats.

At the same time, certain national measures for enhancing the cyber protection of the nuclear weapons infrastructure should be compiled into some sort of “best practices” collection. Perhaps P5 countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) could prepare some handbooks to be distributed, for instance, as part of a Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. This would to some extent demonstrate the responsible approach of recognized nuclear powers to current issues related to nuclear weapons.

As we have mentioned before, developing a relevant section in the Glossary of the Key Nuclear Terms could be a useful step, as fine-tuning the Glossary is supposedly still on the agenda. A dialogue based on a uniform conceptual and categorial framework leads to negotiations being more effective. At the same time, forming a uniform terminology should not be viewed as a trivial task. The solution of this task requires both political will and a deep understanding of the subject of negotiations. And still, even if such procedures do not have a positive outcome, such communications promote an improved understanding of assessments, approaches and paradigms among partners.

We should remember the Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on strengthening global strategic stability today, which envisages, among other things, a joint “analysis of the regulation of new strategic security dimensions” related to the “possible impact of achievements in science and technology.” Moreover, Russia and China consider it appropriate to conduct a multilateral study of the relevant problems and their legal regulation on the basis of the United Nations.

Expanding the Context

As we have already mentioned, the crucial feature of cyber weapons (that kind of links it with “kinetic” weapons, primarily strategic weapons) is that the delivery vehicle and the payload are two different things: the same product can be used to introduce malware intended for monitoring and spying, as well as for control hacking and disabling.

Maybe classifying cyber weapons by hostile impact type can create conditions for searching for points of contact between various countries and international organizations. In general, the task of formalizing and coordinating definitions is one of the most complicated stages of any negotiation process, and a key stage that determines the success of the negotiations and the prospects for adapting the agreements to the rapidly changing reality against the backdrop of the scientific and technological progress.

As for deliberate cyberattacks that may be of interest to states that have the requisite capabilities, we should take note of the opinion of the UK-based Chatham House, which draws attention to the complex dynamics of military-political relations in the event of a further escalation in rhetoric concerning cyberattacks preventing combat missile launches as part of the so-called “left of launch” concept, which the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation calls “pre-start intercept.” The problem is that the hypothetical “Party A,” fearing an attack of such kindby “Party B,” may decide to use weapons at the early stages of a conflict. And if “Party B” is bluffing, then calling its bluff may result in the “failure” of the deterrent tactic. If “Party B” is confident in its supreme cyber capabilities, then its actions can easily become overconfident and result in a “hot” conflict.

Strictly speaking, the problem of the “rules of the game” in cyberspace is important in and of itself, without being tied to nuclear weapons. For instance, attempts can be made to train “cyber soldiers” to follow the rules of international humanitarian law, as, for instance, Professor Götz Neuneck from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) suggests. And the specific content of such concepts as “proportionality” and “military necessity” when applied to cyberspace requires additional research. Joint international exercises, including those related to nuclear systems, ideally with the participation of “probable adversaries,” could be a useful event in this area. Thus, states could gain some experience of acting in a simulated combat situation and gain experience of interaction through emergency communication channels, which is of crucial importance.

Safe Communication Lines

For decades, information and communication technologies have been developing at breakneck speed, and the militarization of cyberspace accompanies these processes. In general, any technological changes result in new threats, and “Neo-Luddism” will hardly be a suitable cure for such threats. “Nuclear abolitionists” are unlikely to achieve their goals in the foreseeable future either: we are seeing a return to the international rivalry of great powers, and nuclear weapons are one of the principal elements confining death and destruction in the course of this rivalry within relatively moderate bounds.

The only way to preserve strategic stability and prevent catastrophic consequences from the incorrect use of nuclear weapons is to perform an in-depth analysis of the impact that new technologies have on the relevant systems. This analysis should be as open as possible and involve an element of international dialogue at both the state and expert levels. At the same time, it is necessary to “increase literacy” in information and communication technologies and nuclear weapons (and their control systems) both among military personnel and among civilian specialists and decision-makers. The NTI Report and the subsequent communication activities of its authors are a step in the right direction, especially since representatives of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation attended the presentation of the report at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

From our partner RIAC

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New strategy of U.S. counter-intelligence: Real and unreal threats

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The newly published US Counter-Intelligence Strategy for 2020-2022 puts Russia and China at the top of the list of countries that pose a threat to the USA. “Russia and China are operating throughout the world, using all power instruments at their disposal against the United States, resorting to a wide variety of modern intelligence methods”, – the document says.

The strategy formulates five objectives for the counter-intelligence service: to protect the critically important infrastructure, cut the number of threats to basic supply chains, counteract the exploitation of American economy, defend the American democracy against foreign influence, and repulse cyberattacks and technological disruptions that could come from foreign intelligence.

The US has made public only a brief 11-page version of the strategy, whereas its full, classified variant will be submitted to members of intelligence committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate, to White House officials, heads of corresponding agencies and other officials with access to classified information. The mere list of goals for counter-intelligence gives rise to questions such as whether they are fully grounded or whether they are all but tribute to the current political trends in the USA.

As we read «protect the American democracy against foreign influence» we understand what they mean by ‘foreign’ – both Democrats and Republicans keep talking about Russian interference in American elections. Although this talk has long been dismissed by many as inconsistent with reality, it nevertheless, continues unabated.

The strategy, published on the website of the US National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center, is a renewed version of the 2015 document. The Center’s Director, William Ivanina, said as he presented the report that modern technology – artificial intelligence, encryption technology, internet of things – make the work of counter-intelligence more complicated. According to CBS, W. Ivanina has been saying since 2014 that China poses the most serious long-term threat to US security. In his words, the theft of American intellectual property, allegedly committed by the Chinese, cost the US 400 billion dollars annually.

Statements about stealing intellectual property are not new and are being exploited by the Americans to justify a trade war they are waging against China. It is not for the first time that the Trump administration is resorting to “banned methods” adding the country’s economic problems to the list of national security threats, which makes it possible to introduce restrictive measures against China.

The strategy in question is seeing light just as the debates on a new American budget are getting under way. This is not accidental given that documents of this kind can justify budgetary spending. In 2021 the US government is planning to spend $1.5 billion to counter “China’s influence” and another $596 million to establish “diplomatic cooperation for securing the strategy in regions of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A statement to this effect is part of the press release circulated by the US State Department and published after the White House submitted to the Congress a draft budget for the next fiscal year.

However, proposals on the budget, though reflecting the position of the US administration, do not always become law. In most cases, the US Congress approves the budget depending on the political situation at home. Now that they have sustained defeat on Trump’s impeachment, the Democrats have a good chance to take it out on the budget. Democratic minority leader in the Senate Chuck Schumer has described the draft budget submitted by the incumbent administration for the next year as “a plan to destroy America”.

Considering that these are all but domestic political games, it is not immediately clear what Russia and China have to do with them.

From our partner International Affairs

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Modi’s extremism: Implications for South Asia

Sonia Naz

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Hindutva is a main form of Hindu nationalism in India this term was popularized by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in the 20th century. It is reinforced by the Hindu extremist volunteer organization Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and Hindu Sena. Hindutva movement has been expressed today as almost fascist in the classical sense (sticking to a disputed idea of homogenized majority and dominance of culture).  The Hindutva moment has gained enormous momentum under the government of Modi (Zaman A. , 2019). Under the Modi’s government dozens of Muslims have been killed for the protection of cows. Most of them are those who allegedly slaughtering cows. These attacks indicate that Hindu extremism has increased. Even, lower caste Hindus also faced violence from hardliner Hindu extremists. (Zaman A. , 2019) .

The prevailing extremism in India is no longer a national issue, but is spilling over to become a regional flashpoint and has worldwide implications. The regional stability is endangered due to the current situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK) (Qureshi, 2019). Since the Modi’s extremist policies revoked article 370 of the constitution of India in which special and independent status had been given to the Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK). This kind of extreme move of a fanatical ruler was expected, whereas, such kind of unconstitutional effort of a democratic government was not expected. Moreover, it is not only a violation of India’s constitution, but it is also a breach of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, which confirmed Kashmir as a disputed territory.

Furthermore, Article 370 and 35-A cancellation changed the demographic structure of IoK. Article 35A prevented the outsiders from staying, buying properties, getting local government jobs or scholarships in IoK than it annulment permitted outsiders to buy properties there.  Hindutva forces are trying to conquer the IoK territory with its 800000 military crowd, which is making the situation more instable there. It would not have lasting consequences for India, but for the whole region (Jaspal, 2019). The Kashmir imbroglio should be the concern of the entire world because it is a perilous flashpoint that could lead to a catastrophic war between two nuclear powers. If this happens, it would not engulf the region, but the entire world. The International community is insensitive towards the recent brutal developments have taken place in IoK. The brutalities boldly committed by the more than 500,000 Indian troops in the occupied valley. There should be a strong response of big powers and the international community towards the atrocious changes in India (Elahi, 2019). 

It is not the first time, Narendra Modi’s administration has involved in many disputes with the regional countries which has put the regional security at risk. Like, the Modi government relationship is not just deteriorated with Pakistan, but other neighbouring states too. In 2015, Madhesi Crisis in Nepal and border issues tensed the India Nepal relations. However, India restricted the flow of trade at the check posts whereas; India did not accept this blame. India also has not good relation with Sri Lanka since 2014 as Sri Lanka has been more disposed towards China with the signing of the infrastructure projects of belt road and initiatives. Moreover, New Dehli was concerned about the harbouring of Chinese submarines in Colombo and ruler of Maldives Abdulla Yameen signed fee trade treaties with China, which was not digestible for India (Wong, 2017).

India’s offensive nuclear posture towards Pakistan and increased violation of the Line of Control (LoC) has made the situation more adverse. India holds Pakistan responsible for every attack on its territory and its attitude towards Pakistan is very hostile. The Pathankot attack in 2016 and Pulwama attack in 2019 increased the resentment as Modi government blamed the attack on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad. Pakistan asked India to provide evidence so that Pakistan can take action, but no evidence had been given. The Indian air force claimed launching air strikes on the camp of Jaish-e Mohammad mountainside in the Balakot region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa . While, following the attack international media and local media disgraced Indian claim of launching the attack and killing many militants. Next morning, Pakistan shot down an Indian MIG 21 fighter and captured the pilot who violated the Pakistan airspace. Still, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan showed peace gesture and released the captured pilot.  (Shoukat, 2019).

The Indian airstrike’s that were launched in response to Pulwama attack were clear a breach of Pakistan’s space sovereignty. It was a clear perspective of war, however; India has continued to justify its position by calling it non-military strike. It was extremely reckless behaviour of a nuclear state. Even, history shows that such events are very rare between nuclear weapons states while the US and Russia never engaged in direct airstrike’s (Jan, 2019). Afterward, an Indian submarine also detained by the Pakistani Navy, which tried to infringe Pakistani water.  India blames Pakistan for every attack and defies the Pakistan air, space and land territory itself. Besides, India is also responsible of sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan through its spies as one of them is Kulbushan Yadav (Shoukat, 2019).

 India’s nuclear doctrine also changed from No First Use (NFU) to First use. The false description of surgical strikes and attacks on non-state base points has demonstrated the uncertain security environment in South Asia.  The Indian nuclear doctrinal change increases the security risks in the region, particularly for Pakistan and China. At Pulwama, Pakistan clearly exposed India’s long-held fable of conventional superiority. At the same time, it is obvious that India would keep its behaviour hawkish towards Pakistan under the radical Hindutva mindset (Nawaz, 2019).

Additionally, India took another major step against the Muslims as it passed a bill on December 9, 2019 that would give the nationality to those migrants who want to become citizens of India except Muslims. This step of Prime Minster would increase the Modi Hindu-nationalist agenda. It would modify the India secular status, preserve by its founders in 1947. The Citizenship Amendment Bill passed by the lower house, the Lok Sabha with 311 votes. Now, it would be presented in the upper house and would become law soon. Hindu extremist agenda deeply unsettled the Muslims with this new law as they would make more than 200 million Muslims second class citizens and many of them stateless. It is not first extremist step of Modi, he also stripped away the autonomy of Kashmir, which was Muslim majority Indian occupied state.

 Furthermore, Hindu fundamentalist build a new temple over the remains of the demolished mosque in the Ayodhya. According to Modi this would protect the maltreated Hindus, Christians and Buddhists who want to migrate from Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, this brutal legislation would extradite innocent Muslim residents, even those whose families have been in India for generation, if they cannot provide evidence of citizenship. Under the Modi’s leadership, attacks and intimidation against Muslim community have augmented and anti Muslim sentiment has become deliberately more mainstream. The people of Assam are protesting in the streets and hoisting placards again the bill because it is against their rights and identity (Gettleman & Raj, 2019).

Besides, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen cancelled his visit for two days Indian Ocean Dialogue and Delhi Dialogue XI, to India. He also rejected a statement by Indian home minister Amit Shah that the new citizenship law will provide safety to “persecuted minorities” from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.  An official visit to India by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been delayed due to the unrest in Assam. Following the protests began in Assam, a curfew was forced in four of the main cities in the state and the internet was shut down. Two paramilitary battalions were deployed to contain the demonstrations. (News, 2019).

In a nutshell, as evident from the aforementioned  brutal developments, it seems that India aspires to increasingly showcase itself  hegemon and potential big power in the region. The Prime Minister Modi government is impressed by the Hindu extremist ideology and making IoK its integral part by forcefully. Its hawkish policies towards Muslims in India and IoK has once again put at stake the peace and stability of the entire region of South Asia. Indian government not only targeting Muslims everywhere, but it is also seizing their identities which is dismantling secularism foundations of India. Moreover, Indian hawkish nuclear posture increases arms race in the region and it is not only threat for Pakistan but the entire region.

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Emerging Cyber warfare threats to Pakistan

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The potential for the next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyber-attack.” -Leon Panetta

In the modern era, war has been revolutionized due to rapid advancements in technology. As a result, cyber security along with its pros and cons is contributing increasingly to modern warfare. Pakistan, however, is still in the developmental phase of cyber security. Although Pakistan has passed its first law related to cyber-crimes, in the form of the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, the overall legislation related to cyber security is still vague and not as strong to deal with the dynamic and broad-ranging nature of threats that emanate from the realms of cyber security.

In recent years, the government has taken some initiatives in order to build capacity amongst the general public such as through PAK-CERT, Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence & Computing (PIAIC), Skills for all Hunarmand Pakistan, Kamyab Jawan, and National Vocational & Technical Training (NAVTTC).Yet, as has been the case for quite some time, most of these initiatives are aimed simply at spreading greater awareness to help lay the foundations for a more robust cyber security architecture. Amidst such developments, the question that arises for Pakistani policymakers is thus where their country currently stands in the cyber domain and how cyber warfare is posing threats to its national security.

In this era of innovation and connectivity even major powers such as the U.S, Russia, China, Israel and the United Kingdom remain vulnerable to an evolving spectrum of cyber threats. Across the world, states are now increasingly dependent on cyber technology which has greatly increased their chances of vulnerability. The most known example is 2015 Stuxnet virus, whereby a devastating cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities wreaked havoc such as at the Nantaz Nuclear facility, significantly rolling back the Iranian nuclear program. Similarly, the WannaCry outbreak in 2017 caused mass disruption by shutting down vital computing systems in more than 80 NHS organizations in England alone. This resulted in almost 20,000 cancelled appointments, 600 GP surgeries having to return to pen and paper, and five hospitals simply diverting ambulances, unable to handle any more emergency cases. Widely attributed as being state sponsored, the attack set another devastating precedent testifying to the wide-ranging vulnerabilities that exist even in some of the world’s most advanced countries. 

Pakistan’s cyber space too is insecure for many reasons because Pakistan is dependent on others for technology. According to leading global cyber security firms such as Symantec, Pakistan is among the ten most targeted countries in the world. Main targets include Pakistan’s nuclear and other critical installations, with publicly revealed assaults on an assortment of media houses, as well as the communications networks, of key government departments including, transport and, basic utilities. Such threats for instance were further confirmed by the Snowden documents released between 2013-2014 that had showed how the NSA was keeping an eye on Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders, utilizing a malware called SECONDATE.

Recently in the year 2019, Rising Security Research Institute has captured the attack launched by the internationally renowned Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) organization “Rattlesnake” through the Rising Threat Intelligence System. This time, the organization had targeted the Pakistani Navy via Target collision hijacking method. Specifically targeting the Pakistan Naval Public Relations Bureau, the attempt was aimed at stealing vital information from secure military networks while planting misleading documents masquerading as official statements from the Pakistan Navy regarding its regional neighbors such as China and India.  Based on such threats, Pakistan must be readily prepared for any kind of cyber espionage and take steps towards establishing a strong national cyber policy to protect its civilian and military infrastructure.

Therefore, at this stage it is imperative that Pakistan seriously focus on the development of a robust cyber war apparatus. This would especially help mitigate the numerous threats being posed to its banking system, as well as major government networks such as its ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as other military networks that have been previously targeted such as in the case shown above. As such Pakistan can take a number of initial steps by developing strategies to prevent malwares and denial of service (DOS) attacks to reduce such threats at least to a certain level.

Yet, Pakistan has still not developed a cohesive Cyber Command or any National Cyber Policy to deal with the regional cyber threats being posed to Pakistan. Even though Pakistan has recently developed a cyber-security auditing and evaluation lab, it is still in its formative stages. There is still immense space to develop advanced tools and research technologies to protect Pakistan’s cyberspace, sensitive data, and local economy from cyber-attacks while restricting illegal penetrations in it. Especially such as the initiative taken by the newly setup National Centre for Cyber Security which aims increase the number of indigenously trained cyber security professionals within the public sector.

Keeping to this trajectory Pakistan should emphasize more on indigenously developing its own cyber security industry so that in the near future it could benefit both its civilian and military infrastructure in the long run. Hence, while Pakistan may be limited in its ability to wage a strong offensive campaign within the realm of cyber warfare at the moment, such steps would go a long way in helping lay the foundations to build something greater on.

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