Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pakistan and Its Nuclear Arsenal - Obama's worst nightmare?

Obama's worst Pakistan nightmare
By David E. Sanger
Published: January 9, 2009

International Herald Tribune

To get to the headquarters of the Strategic Plans Division, the branch of the Pakistani government charged with keeping the country's growing arsenal of nuclear weapons away from insurgents trying to overrun the country, you must drive down a rutted, debris-strewn road at the edge of the Islamabad airport, dodging stray dogs and piles of uncollected garbage. Just past a small traffic circle, a tan stone gateway is manned by a lone, bored-looking guard loosely holding a rusting rifle. The gateway marks the entry to Chaklala Garrison, an old British cantonment from the days when officers of the Raj escaped the heat of Delhi for the cooler hills on the approaches to Afghanistan. Pass under the archway, and the poverty and clamor of modern Pakistan disappear.
Chaklala is a comfortable enclave for the country's military and intelligence services. Inside the gates, officers in the army and the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, known as the ISI, live in trim houses with well-tended lawns. Business is conducted in long, low office buildings, with a bevy of well-pressed adjutants buzzing around. Deep inside the garrison lies the small compound for Strategic Plans, where Khalid Kidwai keeps the country's nuclear keys. Now 58, Kidwai is a compact man who hides his arch sense of humor beneath a veil of caution, as if he were previewing each sentence to decide if it revealed too much. In the chaos of Pakistan, where the military, the intelligence services and an unstable collection of civilian leaders uneasily share power, he oversees a security structure intended to protect Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from outsiders — Islamic militants, Qaeda scientists, Indian saboteurs and those American commando teams that Pakistanis imagine, with good reason, are waiting just over the horizon in Afghanistan, ready to seize their nuclear treasure if a national meltdown seems imminent.

In the second nuclear age, what happens or fails to happen in Kidwai's modest compound may prove far more likely to save or lose an American city than the billions of dollars the United States spends each year maintaining a nuclear arsenal that will almost certainly never be used, or the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan to close down sanctuaries for terrorists.

Just last month in Washington, members of the federally appointed bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism made it clear that for sheer scariness, nothing could compete with what they had heard in a series of high-level intelligence briefings about the dangers of Pakistan's nuclear technology going awry. "When you map WMD and terrorism, all roads intersect in Pakistan," Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and a leading nuclear expert on the commission, told me. "The nuclear security of the arsenal is now a lot better than it was. But the unknown variable here is the future of Pakistan itself, because it's not hard to envision a situation in which the state's authority falls apart and you're not sure who's in control of the weapons, the nuclear labs, the materials."

For Kidwai, there is something both tiresome and deeply suspicious about the constant stream of warnings out of Washington that Pakistan is the epicenter of a post-cold-war Armageddon. "This is all overblown rhetoric," Kidwai told me on a rainy Saturday morning not long ago when I went to visit him in his office, which is comfortably outfitted with oversize white leather chairs and models of the Pakistani missiles that can deliver a nuclear weapon to the farthest corners of India. Even if the country's leadership were to be incapacitated, he insisted, Pakistan's protections are so strong that the arsenal could never slip from the hands of the country's National Command Authority, a mix of hardened generals (including Kidwai) and newly elected politicians. Kidwai has spent the past five years making the same case to American officials: just because a savvy metallurgist named Abdul Qadeer Khan, a national hero for his role in turning Pakistan into a nuclear-weapons power, managed to smuggle nuclear secrets and materials to the likes of Iran, North Korea and Libya for profit in the 1980s and 1990s, it doesn't mean that such a horrendous breach of security could happen again.

"Please grant to Pakistan that if we can make nuclear weapons and the delivery systems," Kidwai said, gesturing to the models and a photo of Pakistan's first nuclear test, a decade ago, "we can also make them safe. Our security systems are foolproof."

"Foolproof" IS MOST likely not the word Barack Obama would use to describe the status of Pakistan's nuclear safety following the briefings he has been receiving since Nov. 6, which is when J. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, showed up in Chicago to give the president-­elect his first full presidential daily brief. For obvious reasons, neither Obama nor McConnell will talk about the contents of those highly classified briefings. But interviews over the past year with senior intelligence officials and with nuclear experts in Washington and South Asia and at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna provide strong indications of what Obama has probably heard.

The full article is here

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