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Is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal vulnerable to terrorists?

Analysis: The deteriorating US-Pakistani alliance shakes up a volatile cocktail of instability, extremism and plutonium.

Details of the attack suggest that the assailants benefited from extensive inside information. It was a well-executed military operation, in which 16 soldiers were killed and two U.S.-supplied surveillance planes were destroyed by a mere six militants. They scaled the base’s walls using ropes and ladders, and appeared well-informed about their targets and the base’s defenses. The assault, which took security forces 16 hours to quell, embarrassed the military and raised questions about its competence.

The attack also exposed allegations of ties between the military and Al Qaeda. On May 27, Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad published an account in the Asia Times alleging that the naval base assailants were retaliating against “massive internal crackdowns on Al Qaeda affiliates within the navy.” Shahzad’s investigation, which quoted anonymous military officers, disclosed that the attack came “after talks failed between the navy and Al Qaeda over the release of naval officials arrested on suspicion of Al Qaeda links” (emphasis added).

Shahzad’s allegations were not well-received. On May 31, the 41-year-old father of three was found dead 100 miles from his car. His body showed signs of severe beating. Journalists and a representative of Human Rights Watch told the NY Times the murder bore the marks of Pakistani intelligence agencies. So rather than celebrating the arrest of alleged militant jihadis in the Navy, powerful forces in the country were apparently reluctant for the world to know how deeply Al Qaeda had infiltrated the military, or that the navy was willing to negotiate a possible release of the extremists, as Shahzad had detailed.

Some experts view the assault as part of a worrying trend of increasingly brazen operations by militants. In October 2009, gunmen in military uniforms executed a similarly well-planned assault against the army’s general headquarters near the capital, resulting in a hostage crisis. Just like the Karachi attack, the assailants were well-organized and appeared to have inside information.

“Terrorists have now developed tactics —including intelligence-gathering, inside help, use of uniforms and military vehicles, and coordinated use of explosives and small arms — that have allowed them to penetrate high-security bases and to defend space within them for many hours,” noted Shaun Gregory, professor of international security at Bradford University, in the U.K., in an email to GlobalPost. “These add up to a virtual blueprint for an attack on nuclear assets.”

The U.S.: the problem or the solution?

Scott Sagan points out a greater potential grab-and-run risk: terrorists may not need to penetrate one of Pakistan’s hardened military bases to obtain plutonium. Instead, in the future, they may be able to snatch it in remote outposts. Sagan explains that there are several threats that might prompt Pakistan to transport its arsenal out of hardened military bases and into the rugged countryside.

Heightened tensions with India could prompt generals to move nuclear materials to the countryside, to ensure that Pakistan maintained its strike capability regardless of an Indian attack. Relations between the neighbors remain tense. According to the Congressional Research Service, risk of nuclear war between them “ran high” during the 1999 Kargil crisis, when the simmering fight over Kashmir boiled over into an overt war.

Deep distrust of the U.S. is another potential trigger for dispersing the arsenal. “Pakistan has a deep fear that the United States is interested in forcibly seizing the country’s nuclear weapons and ‘de-nuclearizing’ it,” says Auner, of the American Security Project. Washington denies any such intentions. Yet Seal Team 6’s handiwork on bin Laden — showing that the U.S. could operate deep inside Pakistan, and right in the military’s heartland — only served to boost such suspicions.

The mistrust poses a sticky quandary for Washington: helping to safeguard Pakistan’s arsenal requires the U.S. to learn more about it, but any efforts to gain information increases Pakistan’s feeling of vulnerability, rendering the arsenal more dangerous. As such, despite the potential for catastrophe, there’s little that the U.S. can do to directly ensure that bits of the arsenal don’t slip into the wrong hands.

American policy toward Pakistan’s arsenal remains deeply, but perhaps necessarily, paradoxical. Washington sends billions in aid to Pakistan each year. It has reportedly spent $100 million to train the military and equip it to safeguard its arsenal. It also sells the country F-16s that, with modifications, could be used to deliver nuclear warheads, according to the National Security Council. On the other hand, Pakistan refuses to provide Washington with access or details about its program. And the U.S. does whatever it can to impede its ally’s nuclear goals — for example, the FBI recently announced the indictment of a Pakistani living in Maryland for allegedly exporting equipment needed for the program’s reactors.

Yet this “frenemy” relationship is about the best that can be expected. Safeguarding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is a complex challenge. Experts differ over the balance of carrots and sticks that should be used to get Pakistan to act in American interests. But most agree that the U.S. has more leverage with Pakistan as a partner, even as a begrudging partner, than as an adversary; that Washington is better off with a toe inside Islamabad’s nuclear tent than as a complete outsider. After all, the West has had much less success in using threats and sanctions to influence Iran and North Korea’s (far more modest) nuclear programs.

Read an interview with nuclear security expert Scott D. Sagan.

Follow David Case on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport