Pakistan and its nuclear weapons loom large over Obama administration

January 11, 2009

Pakistan and its nuclear weapons are back in the centre  of the U.S. foreign policy frame as a steady stream of reports from think tanks and newspapers build the case for President-elect Barack Obama to recognise and act urgently with regard to the potential threat from the troubled state.

The New York Times Magazine in an extensive article  headlined Obama’s Worst Pakistan Nighmare says the biggest fear is not Islamist militants taking control of the border regions. It’s what happens if the country’s nuclear arsenal falls into the wrong hands. And it then takes a trip to the Chaklala garrison where the headquarters of Strategic Plans Division, the branch of the Pakistani government charged with protecting its growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, are located and led  by Khalid Kidwai, a former army general.

“In the second nuclear age, what happens or fails to happen in Kidwai’s modest compound may prove far  more likely to save or lose an American city than the billions of dollars the United States spends each year  maintaining a nuclear arsenal that will almost certainly never be used, or the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan  to close down sanctuaries for terrorists,” writes David E. Sanger, author of a forthcoming book: “The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power”.

The article quotes a Bush administration official as saying there were two ways Pakistan’s weapons could fall into the wrong hands. One was when the Pakistani military was moving its tactical weapons closer to the frontlines when it could be much more vulnerable to seizure by militants. A time of heightened tensions with India, as is the situation now following the attacks in Mumbai, would be a top reason for Pakistan to begin moving its weapons.  Could that be one of the objectives of the Mumbai attacks, the New York Times asks.

A second route for al Qaeda would be to infiltrate Pakistan’s nuclear labs, put in sleeper cells and then squirrel away the material.

“It is relatively easy to teach Kidwai’s security personnel how to lock down warheads and store them separately from trigger devices and missiles, training that the United  States has conducted, largely in secret, at a cost of almost $100 million.”

“”It is a lot harder for the Americans to keep track of nuclear material being produced inside laboratories,  where it is easier for the Pakistanis to underreport how much nuclear material has been produced, how much is in storage or how much might be ‘stuck in the pipes’ during the laborious enrichment process.” And it would be nearly impossible to stop engineers from walking out the door with the knowledge of how to produce fuel and bomb designs.

Last month, the blue-ribbon Commission on Prevention of  Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism submitted its report, with its members making clear that for sheer scariness nothing could compete with what they heard in a series of top-level intelligence about the risk of Pakistan’s nuclear technology going awry.

“Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan. It has nuclear weapons and a history of unstable governments, and parts of its territory are currently a safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists,”  the commission said. It added that it had singled out Pakistan because it believed it constituted a serious challenge to America’s short-term and medium-term security.

“Pakistan is an ally, but there is a grave danger it could also be an unwitting source of a terrorist attack on the United States — possibly with weapons of mass destruction,” it said, adding it must top the list of priorities for the next President and Congress.

Does this steady drumbeat of reports in the days leading up to Obama’s inauguration foreshadow an even more activist, muscular policy toward Pakistan? Reading through these reports -  there is another by Shuja Nawaz  urging the new administration to declare Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas as part of America’s Afghan war theatre because it is the most dangerous spot on earth -  you would think the India-Pakistan tensions of the past month are a sideshow.

For all of New Delhi’s fulminations against Pakistan and the sense of outrage over the Mumbai attacks,  the pressure it can bring to bear on its troubled neighbour is limited compared with America’s.

But is this all justified or is there a bit of hype here? 

The New York Times article quotes Kidwai, the former general with the keys to the nuclear arsenal, as saying that its security systems were foolproof. “Please grant to Pakistan that if we can make nuclear weapons, we can also make them safe,” he says.

And as he points out, should the United States really be giving  lectures on nuclear safety when the U.S. Air Force lost track of some of its own weapons in 2007 for 36 hours, flying them around unguarded to air bases and leaving them by the side of the tarmac?

Or how can you be so sure about U.S. intelligence establishment reports about Pakistan’s arsenal being at risk, when it was so wrong about Iraq’s nuclear weapons?

[Reuters Photos of Pakistan's nuclear test site of Chagai, nuclear capable Ra a'd missile and nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan]

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