Pakistan is taking nuclear paranoia to a horrifying new low. And it's making the world a vastly more dangerous place in the process.
Freaked out about the insecurity of its nuclear arsenal, the Pakistani military's Strategic Plans Division has begun carting the nukes around in clandestine ways. That might make some sense on the surface: no military wants to let others know exactly where its most powerful weapons are at any given moment. But Pakistan is going to an extreme.
The nukes travel "in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic," according to a blockbuster story on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in The Atlantic. Marc Ambinder and Jeffrey Goldberg write that tactical nuclear weapons travel down the streets in "vans with a modest security profile." Somewhere on a highway around, say, Karachi, is the world's most dangerous 1-800-FLOWERS truck.
Tom Clancy should be suing Pakistani generals for ripping off the basic idea behind The Sum Of All Fears. You'll recall that Pakistan is home to al-Qaida, a particularly fearsome version of the Taliban, the leadership of the old-school Taliban, its friends in the Haqqani Network and a host of anti-Indian terrorist groups that the Pakistani intelligence service employ as proxies. Sometimes the Pakistani military helps these terrorist and insurgent groups attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And any one of these groups would love a chance to wield a nuclear weapon.
Except that Pakistan isn't trying to safeguard its nukes from them. It's trying to safeguard its nukes from us. The Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden has made important Pakistani generals think that the U.S. military's next target is Pakistani nukes. So off the vans go, along what Ambinder and Goldberg term "congested and dangerous roads," trying to throw off the scent of the U.S., with little more than hope to protect them from an adventurous highwayman.
The irony is that the U.S. isn't planning to steal Pakistan's nukes - but Pakistan's cavalier attitude toward nuclear security is making the U.S. think twice about whether it should revise some worst-case-scenario contingency planning.
Should any of the nukes go missing, an "Abbottabad redux" would likely occur, Ambinder and Goldberg report. An anonymous military official tells the pair that the Joint Special Operations Command "has units and aircraft and parachutes on alert in the region for nuclear issues, and regularly inserts units and equipment for prep." Seizing Pakistani nukes during or after a military coup is a much harder mission, but the reporters consider it doable. "[I]t's wise for the U.S. to try to design a plan for seizing Pakistan's nuclear weapons in a low-risk manner," Goldberg and Ambinder advise, placing a lot of rhetorical freight on the words "low-risk."
That is, if the U.S. actually knows where the nukes are. "Anyone who tells you that they know where all of Pakistan's nukes are is lying to you," ex-national security adviser Jim Jones allegedly said. The Econolines of Doom make that knowledge even more uncertain.
All of which points to the self-reinforcing downward spiral of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. U.S. cash continues to go into the Pakistanis' pockets, and from there into the hands of anti-American terrorists. There is, for many justified reasons, absolutely no trust between either side's security services and militaries. There is also no alternative to the toxic relationship that anyone cited in the Atlantic piece is willing to contemplate. (When I recently suggested that the U.S. cut off aid and continue the drone war until Pakistan reins in terror groups, I got blasted on Twitter as a warmonger.) "There is no escaping this vexed relationship," Ambinder and Goldberg conclude, reflecting the conventional wisdom in Washington and Islamabad.
Which sinks the U.S. into the nadir of absurdity. It funds a terrorist-sponsoring state while conducting a massive undeclared war on part of that state's territory. It wants that state's assistance to end the Afghanistan war while that state's soldiers help insurgents wage it. And seeking a world without nuclear weapons while its "Major Non-NATO Ally" drastically increases the probability that terrorists will acquire a the most dangerous weapon of all.
Photo: Flickr/Jon Rawlinson
This story was written by Spencer Ackerman and originally appeared on Wired's Danger Room on November 4, 2011, and was republished with permission.
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