Crisis raises alarm over arsenal

Amid Pakistani turmoil, renewed concerns over nuclear weapons

November 08, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- In striking ways, this is America's deepest worry: an Islamic nation in the world's most unstable region, home to al-Qaida's global headquarters, engaged in a shooting war with insurgents and radical terrorists, now beset with escalating political turmoil - and at the center of it all, an arsenal of nuclear bombs.

Pakistan's growing turbulence is raising fears that al-Qaida and allied Islamist extremist groups, which have had deep roots inside Pakistan's intelligence services, will renew their determination to acquire a nuclear device, or that control of Pakistan's prized nuclear arsenal could be seized as a bargaining tool by a political faction or be used as a threat in a conflict inside Pakistan or in the region.

"We will watch it quite closely," Army Lt. Gen. Carter F. Ham, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday. "Any time a nation that has nuclear weapons experiences a situation such as Pakistan is at present, that is a primary concern," he told reporters at the Pentagon, "and that's probably all I can say about that."

"This is a bad one," agreed Robert S. Norris, a nuclear weapons expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Pakistan was thrown into a state of emergency Saturday when the president and military chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, suspended the constitution, shut down independent news media and arrested thousands as violent demonstrations erupted across the country.

Pakistan's estimated arsenal of between 45 and 60 nuclear weapons is controlled by a 10-man National Command Authority (NCA) headed by Musharraf, said Pakistani Brig. Gen. Naeem Salik, who retired two years ago as a senior officer within the NCA.

Pakistan's warheads "are kept under tight security. They are more than adequately guarded," Salik said in an interview yesterday. He said there is "a standard two-man rule" to authenticate access to nuclear release codes, a standard that is "universally" used by all nuclear weapons powers.

Salik, currently a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, scoffed at the idea that the political crisis threatened the security of the nuclear arsenal. "A firecracker goes off, and the media starts jumping all over us," he said. "By the same analogy, when 9/11 happened, one could have asked what would become of America's nuclear weapons."

The United States counts Pakistan as a close ally in what President Bush terms "the global war on terror" and has provided $10.58 billion in mostly military aid. Even so, U.S. officials seemed unclear about the outcome of the current crisis.

A senior White House official, asked this week if it is "just a matter of time" until Musharraf is violently deposed, said: "You don't really know until it happens."

The White House declined yesterday to comment on Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Military experts said U.S. options to intervene, if Pakistan's nuclear weapons are threatened or go missing, are limited. Any armed intervention would be met by stiff opposition from Pakistan's powerful military forces, said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer who is a senior analyst at the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

By any measure, Pakistan is under considerable strain. Aside from the political crisis, Pakistani military units recently have suffered humiliating defeats in the Northwest Frontier Province against Taliban and al-Qaida forces, raising questions about morale within the armed forces under Musharraf's direction. Suicide bombings sweeping Pakistan in recent months have killed more than 600, according to the Pakistani government.

Since he seized control of Pakistan in 1999, Musharraf has survived at least four assassination attempts by Islamist radicals, most recently a week ago when a suicide bomber killed seven people in a blast near Musharraf's headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Amid this turmoil, U.S. officials and private analysts acknowledged that little is known about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, begun when Pakistan tested a nuclear device in 1998.

Pakistan's National Command Authority, which controls the arsenal, consists of the president and prime minister, the civilian heads of major ministries, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and other senior military officers. "They sit in times of crisis, they have the codes with them," Salik said. "It is a clear-cut and defined line of authority."

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