Pakistan's loose nukes
Comprehensive nuclear disarmament remains as urgent as ever
By John Grula 06/16/2011
If you think the demise of Osama bin Laden is going to make the world a safer place, think again.
There has already been an upsurge in violence in Pakistan, where on May 12 more than 80 Pakistani recruits were killed by twin suicide bombings in an attack Taliban militants said was meant to avenge bin Laden’s assassination by US Navy SEALs. The May 12 attacks are the deadliest so far this year in Pakistan.
In addition to more Taliban attacks in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan (where a roadside bomb killed eight US troops on May 26), military and intelligence cooperation between the US and Pakistan has been crumbling. Ongoing Pakistani resentment has been fueled by, among other things, the US’s secret unilateral raid on bin Laden’s residence in Pakistan and a sharp escalation of US drone strikes within Pakistan over the last two years.
Pakistan has become a third war front for our country. “Mission creep” has resulted in US boots on the ground in Pakistan and the huge surge in our drone strikes, which have often killed innocent civilians. More recently, US attack helicopters have also been added to our military presence in Pakistan. Putting aside for now important questions about the wisdom and constitutionality of our new war in Pakistan, a major downside is the strong backlash our actions are generating at all levels of Pakistani society — from the street to the highest levels of the government, military and intelligence apparatus.
Over the last six months, Pakistani authorities have twice leaked the name of our CIA station chief in Islamabad. These leaks clearly demonstrate an ominous shift to a hostile relationship between the CIA and the main Pakistani spy agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI). In late May, Pakistan also moved to close three intelligence liaison centers that facilitate cooperation between the US and Pakistani militaries.
Inflaming relations with the ISI and Pakistan’s military is, for many reasons, dangerously counterproductive in ways that have global as well as regional implications. For example, the ISI and Pakistani military are responsible for the security of Pakistan’s arsenal of approximately 100 nuclear warheads. As tensions between the US and Pakistan’s ISI and military escalate, world leaders have become increasingly concerned about the possibility that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or fissile materials could fall into the wrong hands.
These concerns were recently heightened by the brazen May 23 attack by six Pakistani Taliban militants on the Mehran Naval Station in Karachi. The militants penetrated the heart of the station and waged a bloody and humiliating 18-hour standoff with navy personnel, killing at least 10 of them. The militants — four of whom were killed while two escaped — also destroyed two US-supplied surveillance aircraft. Some analysts think this attack, which the Taliban said was meant to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden, may have been aided and abetted by inside information and/or assistance provided by rogue elements in the Pakistani military or the ISI.
Pakistan does not disclose where it stores its nuclear warheads, but the Mehran base is rumored to be a home for some of them. In a New York Times article published on May 23, Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with STRATFOR, a private security think tank in Austin, Texas, said: “We know that the Pakistani security establishment has been penetrated by jihadists. Are there such people inside the nuclear establishment? One can never rule out the possibility.”
While the US and NATO remain focused on the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan itself remains far more concerned with its long-time arch enemy, India. In a recent Newsweek article, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan, recently stated that it was India’s nuclear explosion in 1974 that motivated him to return to Pakistan and “help create a credible nuclear deterrent and save my country from Indian nuclear blackmail.”
The regional arms race triggered by India’s 1974 test explosion continues unabated, and India’s nuclear arsenal of approximately 100 warheads matches that of Pakistan. Unlike other nuclear weapons states such as the US, Russia, France and Great Britain, which have been reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals, Pakistan and India are building more warheads. By 2021 the American Federation of Scientists projects both countries will have roughly doubled their numbers. And so a complex chain of cause and effect has created the possibility that the Pakistan Taliban, through their infiltration of Pakistan’s ISI and military, may eventually acquire nuclear warheads and/or fissile materials.
Meanwhile, the probability that India and Pakistan may wage nuclear war is by no means zero, and if this were to occur it would be catastrophic not just for these two nations. According to Nature magazine, scientific models have shown that even such a “small” regional exchange of nuclear weapons would ignite fires that would spew so much smoke into the atmosphere that a global “nuclear winter” would ensue, jeopardizing world food production and threatening many life forms.
The need for comprehensive nuclear disarmament remains as urgent as ever.
John Grula is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists