How Safe Is Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal?

Though concerned, U.S. officials say authorities have stepped up security of nuclear weapons.

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Pakistan has been active in improving the safety and security of its nuclear weapons in recent years, despite recent expressions of concern on the topic by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, says a knowledgeable U.S. official.

"It's clear the Pakistani authorities have taken significant steps to enhance the security of their nuclear arsenal...a variety of steps," said the official. "They take the issue of not ever again being a source of nuclear proliferation very seriously."

That was in part a reference to the nuclear black market of ousted Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, who sold nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

The current worry about Pakistan's nuclear force stems from the aggressive advances of armed Taliban units, including some about 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad. The official said, "Obviously, what's going on enters into our thinking.... We are watchful."

The Bush administration started a program to assist Pakistan's military with equipment and training on nuclear security. The official noted, "We have provided some assistance over several years," and that assistance continues. "This is mutually agreed-upon stuff," the official said.

The official also credited Pakistan with improving export controls and participating in a program of pre-screening United States-bound cargo from the port of Qasim, Pakistan, with radiation scanning.

In light of advances by the Taliban in Pakistan, the United States and other Western nations have expressed public questions about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Earlier this week, Pakistan's president felt compelled to respond publicly to those concerns by stating 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.

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 on Wednesday, 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."