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Pakistan nuclear terror: an interview with Stanford's Scott Sagan

Interview: A leading expert on South Asian nuclear security discusses the risks of terrorists seizing materials from Pakistan's arsenal.

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Pakistani Army soldiers guard nuclear-capable missiles at the International Defence Exhibition in Karachi in 2008. (Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: this article is part of "Too Dangerous to Fail," an occasional series on nuclear security issues in Pakistan and beyond. Read more about Pakistan's volatile cocktail of instability, extremism and plutonium.

U.S. relations with Pakistan have worsened rapidly in recent weeks.

Osama bin Laden’s hideout in the garrison town of Abbottabad raised suspicions that Pakistani security officials might have been sheltering America’s most wanted. On the other hand, after the U.S. killed the terror chief, officials in Islamabad expressed outrage over President Barack Obama’s decision to violate their sovereignty.

Last weekend CIA director Leon Panetta flew to Pakistan to confront officials with evidence that military insiders had tipped off Taliban fighters to an imminent U.S.-backed raid on camps where they make bombs for use against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. These tensions are worrisome given that Pakistan has one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing nuclear arsenals.

To get a better sense of the risks that the arsenal could fall into terrorist hands, GlobalPost spoke with Scott D. Sagan, one of the world’s leading authorities on Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Professor Sagan is the co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and the co-chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Global Nuclear Future Initiative. Before joining the Stanford faculty, he served as a special assistant to the director of the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon. He has served as a consultant to the office of the Secretary of Defense and at the Sandia National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is the editor of Inside Nuclear South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2009.)

The interview was edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

To what extent should we worry about the security of Pakistan's weapons or fissionable material will end up in the hands of terrorists?

I think that the security of both Pakistani nuclear weapons and Pakistani fissionable will remain a serious concern for the United States and all international actors.

We invaded Iraq with the goal of seizing weapons of mass destruction, and we're engaged in a standoff with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear weapons initiative. Pakistan has a bigger and more aggressive program, and before 9/11 it was actually the target of U.S. sanctions because of its arsenal. Why has the U.S. chosen to engage Pakistan over its nuclear program, and does this policy still make sense 10 years after 9/11?

Pakistan is in a different category than the cheating regimes under the non-proliferation treaty — that is Iraq, Iran and North Korea — for two reasons. One is that Pakistan never signed the non-proliferation treaty, so its pursuit of nuclear weapons was something the United States did not want, but it had no legal standing to say that Pakistan was violating an international agreement that it had signed.

That's not the case with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, all of whom were caught violating the non-proliferation treaty, which they had voluntarily signed and ratified. Pakistan's actions were unfortunate, but they were not illegal.

The second reason is that the United States has strong geo-strategic reasons to seek Pakistani assistance with respect to the conflict in Afghanistan, and the long-standing war with Al Qaeda and other groups.

Pakistan has very much been both an ally and adversary. They have not been fully supportive of all U.S. goals, but have been supportive of some U.S. goals. And given Pakistan's position and its longstanding use of its own terrorist-supported activities against India, they've been playing a double game with respect to the war on terrorism — fighting some terrorist organizations groups that threaten the regime, but using others as a surrogate in the conflict against India.

Washington has an unusual relationship with Islamabad in that we provide billions in aid and we sell F-16s that could be used for nuclear weapons delivery. At the same time, we currently have a Pakistani executive from a Maryland trading company in custody on suspicion of supplying materials for Islamabad's nuclear program. So we’re trying to stop Pakistan from growing its program at the same time we're trying to safeguard it. And we're also taking steps that —perhaps unintentionally — help them use the arsenal. Is this policy working?

The U.S. government has had a longstanding internal debate about whether to isolate Pakistan and punish it for its nuclear weapons program, or to engage Pakistan to try to contain the program and reduce its size and growth. The policy has been of mixed success.

Before 9/11 the United States government had minimal ties to the group within the Pakistani military that had responsibility for nuclear weapons. According to many press reports, after 9/11 the United States government cooperated by selling some technology and providing some training, not for the delivery of nuclear weapons, but rather for the safety and security of nuclear weapons, fearing an Al Qaeda or related group's attack. What the U.S. government doesn't know, because Pakistan is so secretive in this area, is what Pakistan has done with those technologies and training programs.

It is believed — and I think this is accurate — that under normal peacetime circumstances, the Pakistani military keeps all or virtually all of the weaponry inside well-armed and guarded Pakistani military bases. That doesn't mean that those weapons are entirely safe, but it means that they are relatively safe from terrorist seizure. The greatest danger there would be an inside threat of some sort.

The real danger, I believe, comes if the Pakistani military fears an attack, by either India or the United States. Under those circumstances — whether they're fearful of a raid against their nuclear weaponry, or a military attack using missiles or bombers — they have every incentive for the sake of deterrence, to take the weapons out of their bases and move them to the countryside where they will be less vulnerable to an attack from India or the U.S.

The danger is that makes the weapons more vulnerable to a terrorist seizure, either from an insider or from a terrorist organization. Such a seizure would not require penetrating the defenses of a military base to get to a weapon. Rather, terrorists could simply attack a convoy with nuclear weapons in the countryside.

So as contorted as the current U.S. policy seems, maintaining some level of trust between the U.S. and Pakistan is critical.

It is very much in the United States' interest to persuade the Pakistanis that, despite the Osama bin Laden raid, the United States has no desire for any kind of raid against Pakistan's nuclear forces. If they fear that we're going to do that, that will actually make matters worse, because they would have the incentive to hide the weapons in the countryside, or to place them on the mobile launch systems that they've created, and that makes them more vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

Some experts say the recent attack against the PNS Mehran naval base in Karachi and in 2009 against the Army’s General Headquarters amount to a virtual blueprint on nuclear assets. Would you agree?