HONOLULU -- There’s an old adage about blaming the messenger who bears bad news – a practice often applied to journalists -- but when it comes to disturbing media revelations about the potential theft or unauthorized use of Pakistani nuclear weapons, fingers point in all directions.
Pakistani officials blame their U.S. counterparts for press leaks on some of the most sensitive aspects of their security apparatus. South Asia experts in Washington decry media coverage for sometimes being inaccurate, inflammatory or harmful to relations between the two countries. Public interest advocates in both nations criticize the Pakistani military for a lack of transparency on nuclear security policies and practices that might endanger the region’s population.
Over the years, Pakistanis have said Western news reports focus undue attention on periodic violent assaults by extremists against the nation’s military bases, and on the possibility that someday an atomic weapon might be seized.
Last August, for example, armed militants attacked the Minhas air force installation roughly 25 miles northwest of the capital, where some of the nation’s estimated 100 nuclear warheads are believed stored. The two-hour battle left one security official and eight insurgents dead.
Pakistani military officials reportedly said in 2012 the army had bolstered defenses at another key nuclear site, the Dera Ghazi Khan installation, after seeing indications it could come under Taliban attack.
Though it is unclear whether the Pakistani Taliban has designs on acquiring a nuclear weapon or materials for a radiological “dirty bomb,” al-Qaida operatives also present in the region have said they would use a Pakistani bomb to attack the United States, if the opportunity arose.
As not much reporting about Pakistan has focused lately on good news, officials in Islamabad and some in Washington complain that Westerners are left with a simplistic and overly dire impression of a highly vulnerable arsenal, mistaking speculation and media hype for facts.
Twenty-one Pakistani and U.S. journalists are gathering here this week to discuss this and other challenges affecting their respective news coverage at a forum co-sponsored by the Honolulu-based East-West Center and the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, headquartered in Islamabad.
Pakistani nuclear weapons have been shrouded by secrecy since their initial development in the early 1970s. Even now, little about them is publicly known. The information deficit underscores public concerns about security measures in a country that has become home base for several jihadist organizations.
Leading up to Islamabad’s first nuclear test-detonation in 1998, Washington and other capitals opposed Pakistani development of a deterrent that, like neighboring rival India’s, falls outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime. It has thus lacked the international legitimacy given to the world’s five officially recognized atomic arsenals in China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States.
Stability in Pakistan is today a mixed bag. This month, new national elections are to be called for what would be the country's first peaceful civilian transfer of power. While the overall number of terrorist incidents declined in 2012, sectarian-based attacks were on the rise, according to a recent report by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. Fears are also growing about cross-border instability as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
U.S. diplomats and military leaders have for years conducted an off-and-on dialogue with their Pakistani counterparts about how best nuclear weapons and sensitive fissile materials might be safeguarded from theft or misuse.
Islamabad’s warheads are believed stored at multiple sites apart from their delivery vehicles. Washington officialdom has repeatedly expressed public confidence in the arsenal’s safety, but occasionally has also sounded notes of concern.
On even the smallest chance that the Pakistani government might someday lose control of nuclear arms in a crisis or potentially even civil war, U.S. military planners have developed contingency plans for entering the South Asian nation with the aim of helping secure the arsenal, Global Security Newswire and other media have reported.