“[I]f Pakistan collapses, the U.S. military is primed to enter the country and secure as many of those weapons as it can, according to U.S. officials,” report’s TIME’s Mark Thompson burying his lede three paragraphs into a story whose headline asks, “Does Pakistan’s Taliban Surge Raise a Nuclear Threat?”
He begins by noting that JCS Chairman Mike Mullen last year said he was “very comfortable” about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons but has since stated he is merely “reasonably comfortable.” That out of the way, he reports,
The prospect of turmoil in Pakistan sends shivers up the spines of those U.S. officials charged with keeping tabs on foreign nuclear weapons. Pakistan is thought to possess about 100 — the U.S. isn’t sure of the total, and may not know where all of them are. Still, if Pakistan collapses, the U.S. military is primed to enter the country and secure as many of those weapons as it can, according to U.S. officials.
The concern in Washington is less that al-Qaeda or the Taliban would manage to actually seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, but instead that increasingly-radicalized younger Pakistanis are finding their way into military and research circles where they may begin to play a growing role in the nation’s nuclear-weapons program. Pakistani officials insist their personnel safeguards are stringent, but a sleeper cell could cause big trouble, U.S. officials say.
Nowhere in the world is the gap between would-be terror-martyrs and the nuclear weapons they crave as small as it is in Pakistan. Nor is their much comfort in the fact that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal who was recently ordered freed from house arrest by the country’s supreme court, was the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear proliferation, dispatching the atomic genie to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
However, Thompson observes, the threat is overblown.
But U.S. and Pakistani officials insist it is important to separate Pakistan’s poor proliferation record with what is, by all accounts, a modern and multilayered system designed to protect its nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands.
For starters, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials, there is no way a complete nuclear weapon can be plucked from Islamabad’s stockpile, which is protected by about 10,000 of the Pakistani military’s most elite troops. The guts of the nuclear warhead are kept separate from the rest of the device, and a nuclear detonation is impossible without both pieces. Additionally, the delivery vehicle — plane or missile — is also segregated from the warhead components.
Much more detail is added, talking about the use of Permissive Action Links and other longstanding protocols that are in place. The answer to Thompson’s headline question, then, is essentially No. To the extent Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are a regional threat, it doesn’t come from a Taliban takeover — which is itself unlikely — but from a takeover by an increasingly ideological military. That threat is higher than it was a month ago but it’s still rather remote.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.