Last week’s U.S. raid into Pakistan is fueling one of the country’s most enduring—and potentially dangerous—conspiracy theories: that the U.S. has designs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and is prepared to send highly trained commandos into the country to seize control of the weapons.
The pervasive Pakistani belief that the U.S. would be willing and able to effectively steal the country’s nuclear weapons helps explain Islamabad’s surprisingly aggressive official response to the Navy SEAL assault that killed Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist.
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the head of Pakistan's armed forces, released a blistering public statement late last week condemning the U.S. assault and warning that he would order his troops to use armed force against any American troops who entered Pakistan in the future in pursuit of other wanted militants.
Kayani’s statement also made explicit reference to his country’s nuclear arsenal, which he promised to fully defend against any potential American-led efforts to take control of the weapons.
“As regards the possibility of similar hostile action against our strategic assets, the [Pakistani military] reaffirmed that, unlike an undefended civilian compound, our strategic assets are well protected and an elaborate defensive mechanism is in place,” Kayani said in a statement put out by the military’s official press office.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani echoed Kayani’s tough talk in an address to parliament on Monday, warning the U.S. that future unilateral raids on his country risked “serious consequences.”
“Pakistan reserves the right to retaliate with full force,” Gilani said. “No one should underestimate the resolve and capability of our nation and armed forces to defend our sacred homeland.”
The ferocity of the Pakistani response stunned and angered many senior Obama administration officials, who had expected Pakistan to apologize for the pervasive intelligence failures that allowed bin Laden to spend five years living in an affluent Islamabad suburb under the nose of thousands of Pakistani security officials. American officials also thought Pakistan would quickly ramp up its intelligence sharing about the whereabouts of bin Laden’s likely successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as part of a package of conciliatory gestures toward Washington, where anti-Pakistani sentiment is running at a fever pitch. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his staff would investigate whether elements of Pakistan's government, military, or intelligence service knew bin Laden was in their country or helped shelter him.
"I think at high levels—high levels being the intelligence service—at high levels they knew it," Levin told ABC News last week. "I can't prove it. I just think it's counterintuitive not to."
In an interview with CBS News broadcast Sunday, President Obama said the U.S. believed “there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan” because of the size and location of bin Laden’s compound in a prosperous suburb of the Pakistani capitol of Islamabad.
“We don't know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government, and that's something that we have to investigate—and more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate,” Obama said.
The Pakistani paranoia about the future of its nuclear arsenal is threatening to deal a new blow to the already troubled relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
Pakistan is a country consumed by conspiracy theories, mainly having to do with allegations of nefarious plots by Israel, the U.S., and India. Pakistani newspapers regularly publish breathless “scoops” about American plans to build large military bases inside the country or about so-called “Indo-Zionist” plots by Israel and India to damage Pakistan's fragile economy or weaken its currency.
But few of the purported plots have endured as long—or become as widely held across diverse swaths of Pakistani society—as the belief that the U.S. has been secretly preparing to fly commandos into Pakistan one day to seize its nuclear weapons. Pakistan is believed to have as many as 100 nuclear warheads, and the conspiracy theorists believe the U.S. will one day try to take the weapons to prevent them from falling into militant hands or being used against India.
“It’s one of those conspiracy theories that has been around for a long, long time,” Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, said in an interview. “My belief is that the Pakistani armed forces spread the rumor to drum up anti-American sentiment so they can gain leverage with the U.S. by saying, ‘Look, our people hate you, and we’re the only effective interlocutors you have.’”
Publicly, the Pakistani military has consistently told the U.S. that its nuclear weapons were safely out of the reach of the country’s Islamic militants while assuring its own people that Pakistani forces could defend the weapons if American forces made any effort to capture them.
But the ease with which elite U.S. forces jammed Pakistan’s advanced air defense systems and mounted a precision operation deep inside Pakistani territory is eroding the Pakistani military’s standing in the eyes of its own people and raising new questions there about whether the U.S. could one day mount a similar push to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
“If Americans can attack here, they can do it anywhere,” a 23-year-old medical student named Tahirullah told a reporter from The Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper, last week. “This is a shameful incident for us. Our army should have shot down the U.S. choppers.”
The leader of Pakistan’s leading opposition party, meanwhile, said Pakistan’s civilian government should resign for failing to protect the country’s sovereignty from being breached by U.S. troops.
“Are we going to be the 52nd state of the U.S.?” Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters in Islamabad. “Is the world’s seventh nuclear power so weak that it can’t keep four helicopters from breaking the country’s sovereignty?”
Chamberlin, who currently serves as the president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said relations between the two countries were “at a crisis point” that would only improve if Pakistani leaders toned down their criticism of the U.S., pointing out that American drones had killed numerous high-ranking militants who regularly targeted Pakistani civilians.
“They need to start to change the narrative,” she said. “We can’t give them this kind of $3 billion a year and get this kind of crap in response.”
But persuading Pakistanis to abandon their long-held mistrust of the U.S. is certain to be easier said than done. During a trip to Pakistan last summer, Defense Secretary Robert Gates faced hostile questioning from a journalist from the country’s Express 24/7 television station, Quatrina Hosain, who said conspiracy theories about U.S. plots to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons had taken "on the hue or the coloring of being real" because the American government hadn't formally shot them down. Gates told her there were no such plans and that rumors to the contrary were "all nonsense."
But the questions didn’t go away then. The day after his TV interview, Gates told a crowd of stony-faced senior Pakistani military officers at the country’s National Defence University that the he wanted to tell them “definitively” that the U.S. had “no desire to control Pakistan's nuclear weapons.” Several of the officers shook their heads or rolled their eyes at the remark. With the U.S. demonstrating an ability to do precisely what those officers most feared—easily penetrate their country’s allegedly sophisticated defenses without being spotted—the conspiracy theories about alleged American designs on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons won’t disappear anytime soon.
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