Writing in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton reminds us that the Taliban's recent gains in Pakistan bring them closer to the unthinkable--control of that country and its nuclear arsenal.
In his op-ed, Mr. Bolton outlines two disturbing scenarios:
One scenario is that instability continues to grow, and that the radicals disrupt both Pakistan's weak democratic institutions and the military.
Often known as Pakistan's "steel skeleton" for holding the country together after successive corrupt or incompetent civilian governments, the military itself is now gravely threatened from within by rising pro-Taliban sentiment. In these circumstances -- especially if, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified recently, the nuclear arsenal has been dispersed around the country -- there is a tangible risk that several weapons could slip out of military control. Such weapons could then find their way to al Qaeda or other terrorists, with obvious global implications.
The second scenario is even more dangerous. Instability could cause the constitutional government to collapse entirely and the military to fragment. This could allow a well-organized, tightly disciplined group to seize control of the entire Pakistani government. While Taliban-like radicals might not have even a remote chance to prevail in free and fair elections, they could well take advantage of chaos to seize power. If that happened, a radical Islamist regime in Pakistan would control a substantial nuclear weapons capacity.
That poses a grave challenge for President Obama, who recently endorsed Pakistan's "official" position that it retains secure control over its nuclear arsenal. But official assurances from Islamabad and Washington are anything but reassuring. As we noted two years ago, Islamabad has been less-than-forthcoming on the subject of its stockpile, creating severe "gaps" for intelligence agencies that monitor Pakistan's nuclear program:
"...While there is general consensus on the size of Pakistan's arsenal, we don't know where all the weapons are stored, and getting that information could prove problematic.
For starters, there's Pakistan's chain-of-command, which is unique among nuclear powers. Even during periods of civilian rule, control of the nation's nuclear arsenal has rested with the Pakistani military, which has tightened its command systems in recent years. Pakistan's National Command Authority, oversees an Employment Control Committee and Development Control Committee, as well as the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which has operational control of the nation's nuclear forces.
[Former President Pervez] Musharraf reportedly purged the SPD--along with other military commands--early in his tenure. He also added at least 8,000 security personnel to the division, to ferret out potential threats to Pakistan's nuclear stockpile. But there are lingering questions about the loyalties and world view of mid-level and junior personnel within the SPD, the intelligence service (ISI) and other key military organizations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Islamist influences are growing among lower-ranking personnel, raising doubts about their willingness to protect Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from internal, fundamentalist threats.
There's also the issue of where Islamabad keeps its weapons, or alternately, the key components used to build nuclear bombs and missile warheads. Intelligence officials suggest that Pakistan, keeps much of its stockpile disassembled, partly as a security caution. However, unlike India (which stores components at facilities spread over great distances), Pakistan is believed to keep weapons components relatively close to delivery systems, making it easier to assemble--and use--its nukes. This tactic increases the number of facilities at which nuclear components are stored, complicating Pakistani security measures, and (potentially) outside intervention efforts.
And, the number of nuclear facilities in Pakistan is increasing, thanks to the growth of that nation's ballistic missile program. With Islamabad fielding new short and medium-range systems, the SPD has been on a construction binge, building new missile garrisons and support facilities across Pakistan. Some of the installations simply house missile crews or provide maintenance functions, but others are probably used to store nuclear weapons, or their components.
Determining which facilities are reserved for that function has become more difficult, thanks to Pakistan's growing proficiency in denial and deception (D&D) and operational security. The location of some Pakistani missile facilities was apparently influenced by terrain, with engineers selecting sites where key complexes (including storage tunnels) can be obscured or blend in with rugged topography, making overhead detection more complex.
Pakistan also goes to great lengths to conceal the location and function of key installations. Analysts who follow Islamabad's program say that bases are often referred to by a codeword or number, and some installations have multiple designations. That complicates the process of determining the purpose of an individual site, and how it relates to Pakistan's overall nuclear program. Islamabad also employs other deception techniques--including advanced camouflage netting and activity scheduling (conducting key activities when our satellites aren't looking) to maintain the secrecy of its nuclear program.
In other words, the U.S. doesn't have definitive intelligence on the whereabouts of Pakistan's nukes. It's the type of shortfall that would prove critical if--or when--Washington has to intervene to ensure the security of Islambad's arsenal.
Unfortunately, those gaps mean it will be difficult to account for all of Pakistan's weapons. That means an increased risk that an Islamist regime would almost certainly inherit some nuclear devices and delivery platforms--and the know-how to build more.