It is usually a subject that U.S. and Pakistani officials scrupulously avoid discussing in public: the security and safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. But that's changed in the past few weeks, particularly after Taliban fighters pushed into areas near the country's capital.
The Taliban's advance was alarming enough to prompt an unusual declaration by Pakistan's president that the country's atomic arsenal is beyond the grasp of Islamist militants. "I want to assure the world that the nuclear capability of Pakistan is under safe hands," President Asif Ali Zardari insisted last week. His comments followed a chilling warning from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "If the worst, the unthinkable, were to happen and this advancing Taliban—encouraged and supported by al Qaeda and other extremists—were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan," she said. "We can't even contemplate that." At his press conference last week, Obama addressed the issue: "We have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don't end up having a nuclear-armed militant state." Obama met with Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week and pledged cooperation in fighting the Taliban. At the same time the Pakistani army launched an offensive on the Taliban in the Swat Valley.
The rare public discussion of a subject that for years has been almost taboo shows how concerned Washington is about Pakistan's future stability. Pakistani officials dislike the attention on their nuclear apparatus, and some are said to suspect a U.S. desire to seize or neutralize their weapons in the event of a full breakdown in security. U.S. officials have tended to steer clear of the topic to avoid jeopardizing Pakistani cooperation on safety and security issues. "The more we talk about it, the harder it becomes to do the work," says Michael Krepon, a cofounder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
Pakistan's nuclear force is the crown jewel of its strategic assets—enough fissile material for roughly 60 nuclear weapons. The actual number of bombs has not been disclosed, but they form what Pakistani officials call a deterrent to arch rival India. In recent years, U.S. officials have worked closely with Pakistan's military—though without full information on or access to the country's nuclear apparatus—to improve physical security. "We have provided some assistance over several years," says one knowledgeable U.S. official. "Pakistan takes the security of its arsenal very seriously."
The U.S. program began after 9/11 and has included tens of millions of dollars in security training for Pakistani nuclear officials in the United States and high-tech security equipment to protect Islamabad's nuclear assets. In March, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that Pakistan had moved to enhance nuclear security but added that "vulnerabilities exist."
Among the risk-reducing steps, say nuclear specialists, Pakistan is believed to store separately the fissile core of its bombs, the non-nuclear triggering explosives, and the delivery vehicles themselves (missiles and aircraft). Key scientific and technical personnel are said to be carefully screened and monitored for any connections to the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Mobilization of nuclear forces is said to be possible only under strict requirements overseen by a National Command Authority, a group of veteran generals and top civilian officials. Separately, the Pakistanis, says the U.S. official, have improved export controls and participated ably in a program to do radiation scanning of U.S.-bound cargo from the Pakistani port of Qasim.
The concern about Pakistani nuclear security relates not only to the Taliban's recent advances and the weakness of a young, civilian government in response but also to the country's history of proliferation. Until he was placed in custody, A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, orchestrated a breathtaking nuclear black market that sold technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.