WASHINGTON -- A Pakistani army assertion last week that the nation's nuclear weapons remain safeguarded against potential terrorist theft has drawn mixed reaction in the U.S. capital (see GSN, May 5).
Washington officials and experts are weighing the possible implications for atomic security if Pakistani military and intelligence leaders were -- as they insist -- unaware that the world's most infamous terrorist leader was essentially living among them in an army garrison town for five to six years.
"Pakistan's government claims that it did not know about the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad," Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Robert Casey (D-Pa.) said on Tuesday, in one of the latest expressions of concern by U.S. lawmakers and top brass. "If true, this apparent incompetence does not inspire confidence in the ability of Pakistan's governing or security institutions to oversee their nuclear weapons program."
The Pakistani army last Thursday warned the U.S. military to reduce its footprint in the country following the May 2 unilateral action -- ordered by President Obama and carried out by elite special operations forces - that resulted in the death of the al-Qaeda head and four of his cohorts.
Islamabad's military, deeply embarrassed by the surprise operation, also said that "the nation's strategic assets" remain "well protected and an elaborate defensive mechanism is in place." The reference was apparently to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which is estimated at roughly 100 weapons and growing.
Over the years, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen has repeatedly voiced confidence in Islamabad's ability to safeguard its stockpile against seizure by violent extremists.
The top U.S. military officer in 2009 said he was "comfortable that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure, that the Pakistani leadership, and in particular the military, is very focused on this."
At the same time, Washington has discussed assisting Pakistan in securing or destroying any excess uranium or other potential bomb-making materials (see GSN, May 5, 2009).
"We have offered any assistance that Pakistan might desire with respect to [the] means for security of nuclear weapons," James Miller, the principal deputy Defense undersecretary for policy, said at a May 4 Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing.
How much of that aid Islamabad has been willing to accept remains unclear. Pakistani leaders have been reticent to divulge many details about their atomic stockpile, fearful that the U.S. or Indian militaries might unilaterally seize these weapons.
Islamabad's worries have only been heightened by last week's raid. The Obama administration opted against notifying Pakistan in advance of the assault out of concern that bin Laden might be tipped off, U.S. officials have said (see GSN, May 9).
Some experts say Islamabad's hand wringing about the potential for a U.S. snatch-and-run operation against its nuclear stockpile amounts to conspiracy theories. U.S. military officers report, though, that Pentagon leaders actually have developed contingency plans to forcefully secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons, if necessary, in the event of an extremist coup (see GSN, June 10, 2009).
A former top U.S. military commander said last week that even if the Pakistani army and intelligence services failed to detect bin Laden's presence within a mile of a prominent military academy, Islamabad's control over its nuclear arsenal likely remains firm.
"It's two different things," said retired Adm. William Fallon, who as head of Central Command led all U.S. forces in the region until March 2008. "When I was out there and looked at the situation, I had -- from what I could see -- high confidence in their ability to take care of business regarding security of those [nuclear weapons]."
Interviewed on May 5, Fallon said Pakistan's failure to detect or shut down a terrorist leader's activities does reveal potentially huge weaknesses in that nation's intelligence capabilities or its willingness to counter extremist activities. After years of making nuclear-armed neighbor India its central security focus, Pakistan's security and intelligence apparatus has only relatively recently begun seriously addressing the threat posed by violent militants, he noted.
That said, Islamabad appears to regard the security of its nuclear assets as a matter of national priority, in part because of the concerns about their potential capture someday by highly capable U.S. or Indian military units.