Experts Differ on Pakistani Nuclear Security
Western analysts have offered varied assessments of the risks of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands in light of the civil unrest that followed last week’s assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto (see GSN, Dec. 14, 2007).
U.S. and Pakistani officials have issued reassurances that Pakistan’s arsenal is safe from Islamic extremists.
“At this time, as far as I know, it is the assessment of the intelligence community that Pakistan’s weapons arsenal is secure,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Friday (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Dec. 30).
Some private experts, however, have refused to accept such comforting statements.
“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,” wrote Harvard University scholar Graham Allison in a Newsweek commentary.
Pakistan’s nuclear security measures were mostly designed to prevent India from locating the weapons, Allison said. Those measures have included dispersing weapons components at multiple sites.
“But these arrangements by necessity increase the likelihood that corrupt officials could successfully divert weapons or materials,” Allison said.
He also warned of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf possibly losing the support of his military backers, a prospect that combined with the poor regard held by Pakistan’s populace for the United States could lead to a nuclear seizure.
“It would be a grave mistake,” Allison wrote, “to take comfort from the serene assurances of officials in governments, here and there, about everything being under reasonable control” (Graham Allison, Newsweek, Dec. 28).
Other analysts recently shared their concerns as well, the Ottawa Citizen reported.
“We could have a situation where extremists were able to control the nuclear facilities of Pakistan,” said Paul Wilkinson, who formerly led St. Andrews University’s Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. “That would be a very dangerous nightmare scenario, and one that we really ought to be concerned about.”
Some analysts, however, have urged more caution about raising the nuclear alarm.
There is no sign that Pakistani security forces will falter, said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even if weapon components were stolen, it was “extremely unlikely” that the thieves could assemble a working weapon, he said (Dominique Price, Ottawa Citizen/Canada.com, Dec. 29).
Another U.S. expert concurred.
“Pakistan's weapons are under the control of the military and by and large that will remain unchanged,” said the Monterey Institute’s Leonard Spector. “From a standpoint of security we'll probably have continuity and relatively satisfactory control.”
“This is not a reassuring set of changes that we're experiencing, but on the other hand I think the military for the moment has a lot of coherence and solidarity. I think we'll see that continue,” he added (AFP, Dec. 30).