Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dawn: US focused on ‘vulnerability’ of Pakistan nukes

Some related comments made on IS earlier: here

US focused on ‘vulnerability’ of Pakistan nukes

By Anwar Iqbal, Dawn, May 04, 2009


WASHINGTON: The United States is expected to discuss the perceived vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons with the Pakistanis during President Asif Ali Zardari’s three-day visit which began on Monday.

The concern that the weapons may fall into the hands of the Taliban militants were first expressed in the US media and were then backed by various Washington think-tanks, all basing their fear on recent developments in the NWFP.

The Swat deal was interpreted in the US media as a victory for the Taliban and when the militants entered Buner, the media predicted that sooner or later they would also capture Islamabad because they were now less than 60 miles from the Pakistani capital.

But on Monday, America’s military chief Admiral Michael Mullen also joined the debate, indicating that while he did not believe the militants would actually seize the weapons, he shared the concerns expressed by the media and the think-tanks.

‘I don’t think that’s going to happen … but it is a strategic concern that we all share,’ he said.

The admiral then assured the Pakistanis that he ‘remain(s) comfortable that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure.’

This is how other US officials have also responded whenever they are asked to comment on the perception of the US media that the militants were about to seize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal: the weapons are save but they are vulnerable.

But a new element in the debate was introduced by a former Bush administration official, John Bolton. Mr Bolton, who has a hawkish reputation, urged the Obama administration earlier this week that they should try to take away as many weapons as possible from Pakistan.

In an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Mr Bolton said: ‘We should contemplate whether and how to extract as many nuclear weapons as possible from Pakistan, thus somewhat mitigating the consequences of a regime collapse.’

Washington’s leading anti-nuclear lobby, the Institute for Science and International Security, added yet another element into the debate by insisting that Pakistan had totally ignored US concerns about its nuclear weapons. Instead of securing the weapons it already had, Pakistan was making new weapons.

The ISIS chief David Albright, previously a senior weapons inspector for the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency in Iraq, said commercial satellite photos showed two plutonium-producing reactors were nearing completion at Khushab, about 160 miles south-west of Islamabad.

‘In the current climate, with Pakistan's leadership under duress from daily acts of violence by insurgent Taliban forces and organised political opposition, the security of any nuclear material produced in these reactors is in question,’ Mr Albright said in a report issued by his group.

Mr Albright warned that the continuing development of Pakistan's atomic weapons programme could trigger a renewed nuclear arms race with India. But he suggested a more immediate threat to nuclear security arose from recent territorial advances in north-west Pakistan by indigenous Taliban and foreign jihadi forces opposed to the Pakistani government and its American and British allies.

‘Current US policy, focused primarily on shoring up Pakistan's resources for fighting the Taliban and al Qaida, has had the unfortunate effect of turning the US into more of a concerned bystander of Pakistan's expansion of its ability to produce nuclear weapons,’ Mr Albright said in the report, co-authored with Paul Brannan.

The US and the British media quickly pointed out that the Khushab reactors were situated on the border of Punjab and the NWFP, the scene of heavy fighting between Taliban and government forces.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress recently that Pakistan had dispersed its nuclear warheads to different locations across the country in order to improve their security. But Mr Bolton said that this move could have the opposite effect to that intended.

‘There is a tangible risk that several weapons could slip out of military control. Such weapons could then find their way to al Qaida or other terrorists, with obvious global implications,’ Mr Bolton said.

Mr Bolton questioned President Barack Obama's assurance last week that while he was ‘gravely concerned’ about the stability of Pakistan's government, he was ‘confident that the nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands’.

Since there was a real risk of governmental collapse, Bolton said the US must be prepared for direct military intervention inside Pakistan to seize control of its nuclear stockpile and safeguard western interests.

‘To prevent catastrophe will require considerable American effort … We must strengthen pro-American elements in Pakistan's military, roll back Taliban advances and, together with our increased efforts in Afghanistan, decisively defeat the militants on either side of the border,’ he said.

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