Does Pakistan's Taliban Surge Raise a Nuclear Threat?

By Mark Thompson / Washington..TIME.COM
When asked last year about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen didn't hesitate: "I'm very comfortable that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure," he said flatly. Asked the same question earlier this month, his answer had changed. "I'm reasonably comfortable," he said, "that the nuclear weapons are secure."

As America's top military officer, Mullen has traveled regularly to Pakistan — twice in just the past two weeks — for talks with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Kayani, and others. And like all those who have risen to four-star rank, Mullen chooses his words with extreme care. Replacing "very comfortable" with "reasonably comfortable" is a decidedly discomforting signal of Washington's concern that no matter how well-guarded the nukes may be today, the chaos now enveloping Pakistan doesn't bode well for their status tomorrow or the day after.

The prospect of turmoil in Pakistan sends shivers up the spines of those U.S. officials charged with keeping tabs on foreign nuclear weapons. Pakistan is thought to possess about 100 — the U.S. isn't sure of the total, and may not know where all of them are. Still, if Pakistan collapses, the U.S. military is primed to enter the country and secure as many of those weapons as it can, according to U.S. officials.

The U.S. has been keeping a watchful eye on Pakistan's nukes since it first detonated a series of devices a decade ago. "Pakistan has taken important steps to safeguard its nuclear weapons, although vulnerabilities still exist," Army General Michael Maples, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. Then, he immediately turned to the threat posed by al-Qaeda, which, along with the Taliban, is sowing unrest in Pakistan. "Al-Qaeda continues efforts to acquire chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials," he said, "and would not hesitate to use such weapons if the group develops sufficient capabilities."

The concern in Washington is less that al-Qaeda or the Taliban would manage to actually seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons, but instead that increasingly-radicalized younger Pakistanis are finding their way into military and research circles where they may begin to play a growing role in the nation's nuclear-weapons program. Pakistani officials insist their personnel safeguards are stringent, but a sleeper cell could cause big trouble, U.S. officials say.

Nowhere in the world is the gap between would-be terror-martyrs and the nuclear weapons they crave as small as it is in Pakistan. Nor is their much comfort in the fact that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal who was recently ordered freed from house arrest by the country's supreme court, was the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear proliferation, dispatching the atomic genie to Iran, Libya and North Korea. But U.S. and Pakistani officials insist it is important to separate Pakistan's poor proliferation record with what is, by all accounts, a modern and multilayered system designed to protect its nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

For starters, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials, there is no way a complete nuclear weapon can be plucked from Islamabad's stockpile, which is protected by about 10,000 of the Pakistani military's most elite troops. The guts of the nuclear warhead are kept separate from the rest of the device, and a nuclear detonation is impossible without both pieces. Additionally, the delivery vehicle — plane or missile — is also segregated from the warhead components.

Over the past decade, Pakistan has created the National Command Authority and the Strategic Plans Division to manage the nuclear infrastructure from day to day, and the U.S. has given Pakistan an estimated $100 million since 9/11 to bolster the security of its arsenal. While much of that has been spent on bringing Pakistani nuclear personnel to the U.S. for training, it has also been spent on hardware, including various surveillance and security systems.

Then, there's the touchy area of "permissive action links" — the electronic "locks" on nuclear weapons that must be "opened" for a nuclear detonation to take place. Washington doesn't share its own PALs with other countries for fear of losing control of the technology and surrendering key elements about U.S. weapons design (although installing PALs on another country's nukes — with a secret "kill" capability that could remotely render the weapons impotent — has always been a tempting option). "Permissive action links are custom-made devices based on the design and configuration of the weapons," former senior Pakistani nuclear official Naeem Salik told TIME 16 months ago. Until late 2005, he had served as director of arms control and disarmament affairs at Pakistan's National Command Authority, created in 1999 as the command and control center for Pakistan's nuclear weapons. "Unless one is willing to share the technical configuration of the weapon, a permissive action link cannot be developed. We did not share these secrets, so we never asked for the permissive action links — our people have developed our own."

That may all be well and good, Mullen seemed to suggest to NBC during a Wednesday interview in Afghanistan, just before he headed across the border to Islamabad. But, he cautioned, it may not be good enough, given the turmoil racking Pakistan. "My long-term worry," Mullen said, "is that descent — should it continue — gives us the worst possible outcome there."

Living in wonderland

EDITORIAL:Frontier Post
Is the prime minister living in the real world or in some wonderland, a world of his own make-believe? He says neither the government would permit state within state or parallel courts in the country. Goodness, can you beat it? Is he too ignorant to know or are the hideous ground realities too bitter for him to admit? Leave aside North and South Waziristan and a big chunk of the tribal areas? Leave aside whose writ runs there, the militants’ or the state’s? Hasn’t the ANP-led Frontier government with the Centre’s consent ceded state authority to Sultan Sufi Mohammad’s Malakand caliphate in these very days? Hasn’t it acquiesced to a parallel judicial system’s establishment in Malakand under that spiritual imposter and an unvarnished obscurant’s superintendence? Isn’t that charlatan braying loudly that it is he who alone will appoint Qazi courts’ judges and it is who will vet their judgements? And isn’t it that Swat is now under the rule of his son-in-law Fazlullah’s gun? And haven’t the state functionaries, including security personnel, to abide by the rules of movement laid out by that Swati thug or have to face the consequences, as indeed they have in many an instance? So who is the prime minister kidding and is dishing out such a churlish braggadocio with such a straight face without any inhibition or compunction and without batting even an eyelid? Dos he think our people are so nincompoops and dimwits that they would chew his boast, with no questions asked and with no eyebrow raised, that the government’s writ would be ensured at all costs? Aren’t they seeing with their own eyes the state’s writ shrinking and the militants’ expanding? After establishing their rule in Swat, the Swati thug’s gunmen have conquered Buner and entered into Shangla to bring it too under their sway. And yet the prime minister would have it believed that his government would not let its authority to be tampered with. What a laughable brag is this! There indeed is a terrible hiatus with the present lot of rulers, both at the centre and in the provinces. The non-issues they remain engrossed in; the real issues they just shrug off or give a short shrift to. And none seems to be really any alive at all to the enormity of the existential threat to this country being posed viciously by extremists, militants and terrorists at the behest of their foreign paymasters and masterminds. What needs to be dealt with by a very hard-boiled thinking, incisively farsighted policies, and exceptionally tough decisions and actions is being sought to be tackled playfully with empty sloganeering and foolish populism. On a platter, the ANP has handed over Swat to a spiritual swindler and his wicked son-in-law, and is now watching helplessly as his brigands are fanning out to the neighbouring districts from where, make no mistake about it, they will advance to other territories. And, appallingly, the inexplicably-vain prime minister’s government has as yet not even a strategy to withstand the onslaught of these advancing hordes of vile Fazlullah, nor has it a policy to counter extremism and terrorism, visibly ascendant all over the country. It is not just the tribal areas that are in the militancy’s tight grip; the Frontier province is in flames for the most part. Punjab, too, is coming under its vicious clouds. Karachi is precariously living in its shadows. And Balochistan is in a state of insurgency. Yet, the prime minister is behaving as if it is all hunky-dory throughout the country; and if at all there is a problem, it is mere pinpricks and minor irritants that could be dealt with routinely. He doesn’t give sense if at all he has any measure of the immensity of the existential threat staring the nation in the face. The people are aghast. They are despondent. Their sense of insecurity is spiralling sky-high. And they are feeling utterly hapless and helpless. And they have lost all hope, even in the military to protect them from the wicked terrorists’ and militants’ thuggery. Can you imagine citizens in a functional state asking the military not to intervene and let them to live under the militants’ thumbs, as are the residents of Buner and Shangla, fearing the army would fail to subdue the wild gunmen as it had in Swat, leaving them to face horrific consequences like their Swati cousins at the thugs’ vengeful hands? And yet the prime minister has the gumption to brag his government would come down heavy on the Swati thugs if they violate the ANP-pioneered accord with the devious Sufi. But when? Visibly, not only have they actually trashed that stupid accord in every manner, they are now making its use to spread out near and afar, too. The prime minister must understand critical gigantic issues like the existential threat the nation is presently confronted with cannot by unraveled by mumbling pious vows of “resolves” and “determinations”. They need powerful actions which can come about only by combining up the state’s civil and military powers under a no-nonsense policy and strategy. That should happen right now. Tomorrow will be too late. He must leave aside his pet Punjab project, for the time being. Instead, he must attend to the Pakistan project, in all earnestness.
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Dated: Saturday, April 25, 2009, Rabi-us-Sani 28, 1430 A.H.