What About the Nukes?

The assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto reminds us starkly of an unanswered question most of us would prefer to forget: how secure are Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? Could al-Qaeda or another terrorist group acquire a warhead or enough radioactive material to create a dirty bomb?

Over the years I have had the opportunity to discuss the loose nukes issue with Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf on three separate occasions. On each he insisted that there is no possibility that corrupt custodians or terrorists could steal the country’s nuclear weapons and materials. But in the third of these conversations, which occurred in December 2003, just a week after terrorists came within a second and a half of blowing him up, I managed to penetrate his standard defense. How plausible is it, I asked, that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is more secure than the president of the country himself? His answer: well, there you may have a point.

A witch’s brew that includes political instability, a burgeoning Islamic insurgency, a demoralized army and an intensely anti-American population, puts Pakistan’s nuclear weapons at risk. Washington and Islamabad have offered soothing reassurances, suggesting that some technical and procedural safeguard like a “kill switch” separates the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from the stability of the state. As recently as November, Musharraf told reporters that Pakistan’s custodial arrangements for nuclear weapons and material are “the best in the world” and that so long as he is in power “Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will be safe.”

Even a quick analysis of the security situation faced by Pakistan’s nuclear custodians presents clear outlines of their nightmare—and ours. First, just four years ago the chief scientist and father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, A. Q. Kahn, was arrested for black-marketeering nuclear weapons technology and even bomb designs to North Korea, Libya, and Iran. Kahn created what the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called the “Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation.” What made it possible for Kahn to do so was an extended period of instability in the country. Could uncertainty and instability in Pakistan today provide similarly propitious opportunities for mini-Khans to proliferate?

Second, the design of Pakistan’s nuclear control system creates risks of insider theft. This system addresses first and foremost Pakistan’s fear that if India, its archenemy, knew the location of the country’s weapons it could launch a pre-emptive attack that eliminated them. The notion that there are sophisticated electronic locks on all Pakistani weapons and that only Musharraf has the codes just isn’t credible. Were that the case, an attack that killed Musharraf could eliminate Pakistan’s ability to retaliate. Instead, Pakistan has dispersed its weapons and distributed oversight to multiple strategic and security authorities. But these arrangements by necessity increase the likelihood that corrupt officials could successfully divert weapons or materials.

Third, potential disaffection in the army increases the odds that mini-Khans might emerge. According to Musharraf, after 9/11 the United States gave Pakistan a choice between signing up as an American ally in the war on terror or “being bombed back into the stone age.” He chose alliance. Since joining the U.S. war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Pakistan has received about a billion dollars a year of mostly military assistance. With mounting setbacks, including the reconstitution of Al Qaeda headquarters and training camps in the country’s borders with Afghanistan, frustration over fighting “America’s war” is mounting among Pakistan’s national security establishment. And as the United States and others press the cause of democracy in ways that diminish the traditional role of the army, Pakistani officers’ ambivalence about the United States may increase. An International Republican Institute poll earlier this month found that one out of two Pakistanis believe the army should have no role in civilian government. Bhutto’s assassination may further erode the prestige and credibility of the army and security services.

Finally, the larger society has a decidedly negative view of the United States. In a 2007 Pew poll, two out of three Pakistanis named the United States as the greatest threat to their country.

From this cauldron of combustibles there is no ready exit. It would be a grave mistake, however, to take comfort from the serene assurances of officials in governments, here and there, about everything being under reasonable control.

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