The desktop exercises are among hundreds carried out by each U.S. combatant command -- with scenarios ranging widely from likely to wacky -- as a means of being ready for almost any global crisis in which the president might conceivably order a military mission.
Though such Defense Department thought drills are highly secret, they have been accompanied by public calls from Bush-era envoy John Bolton and a number of others who say a potentially explosive mix of jihadists and nuclear weapons might require U.S. military intervention.
Published commentaries of this sort -- as well as media reporting on so-called Pentagon “what if” drills -- have gone viral in Pakistan. The alleged military vulnerabilities understandably have provoked much public anxiety.
The nation’s civilian politicians and powerful military, staunchly supporting what Pakistanis widely view as their defense trump card, have at times suspected that the prolific talk of crisis-contingency plans belie a serious U.S. desire to seize its atomic arms.
“When the U.S. says that they are worried about the security [of] Pakistan’s nuclear arms, it means it fears that these might fall in the hands of such elements as the extremists Taliban,” said a commentary published by Pakistan’s Frontier Post in late 2011. “However, when [former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood] Qureshi says so, he means that these are in danger of being whisked away by the U.S. armed forces.”
The same year, the nation’s Daily Mail reported that one well-known strategic analyst and newspaper columnist had claimed on Islamabad’s version of “Meet the Press” that the U.S. interest in Pakistan’s arsenal is part of a broad strategy to control the South Asian country, gain access to its energy resources and contain China.
“The U.S. intends to [put] nuclear assets of Pakistan under the supervision of the United [Nations]” and “that is why she pressurizes Pakistan by painting a picture of chaos and instability in the country,” Shireen Mazari was quoted as saying.
Pakistani concerns of this sort became particularly acute following the May 2011 U.S. assault that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, according to issue experts.
Many uniformed officers in Islamabad suspect their U.S. counterparts in the military and diplomatic corps of leaking stories about Pakistani atomic force weaknesses -- and about potential grab-and-go operations -- as a means of sowing public doubt and humiliating the South Asian nation, Washington officials say.
After a number of these news reports have appeared, Pakistani officials have gone silent about the nuclear arms in military-to-military and other bilateral dialogues, reportedly citing a loss of trust, according to U.S. government sources.
U.S. issue experts have voiced concern that chilled exchanges could ultimately harm security by effectively cutting off Pentagon and State Department guidance and support for Pakistan in joint efforts to prevent a catastrophic incident.
Public calls for a possible U.S. military intervention during a crisis – or even simply voicing concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear safeguards in peacetime – have “really made it difficult” for Washington officials to sustain a dialogue with that nation’s army about possible security improvements to be made, said one U.S. government official interviewed last week.
“Anything that’s out there that paints Pakistan in a negative light -- on what they consider the crown jewel of their security -- has an impact on our bilateral relationship,” the source said.
This Washington official and a number of others agreed to be interviewed for this article on condition of not being named, citing diplomatic sensitivities.
“I believe that the commentary and reporting about contingency planning to scoop up nuclear weapons in Pakistan is certainly not helpful,” agreed Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center and director of its South Asia program. “It’s your job to report the news. But reporting the news is different than reporting speculative assessments.”
Though Pentagon planning drills might be uncontroversial in the United States, they are perceived quite differently halfway around the world, according to some issue experts.
“Whatever the U.S. says gets amplified a thousand times in Pakistan,” Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, said in an e-mail exchange last week. “It is therefore better that its worries about Pakistani nukes be kept private.”
A Defense Department spokesman took a moderate stance on the matter.
“Media reporting plays an important role in informing the public, and it is important to us that the reporting is accurate,” Lt. Col. James Gregory said in a written response to questions last week. “But our relationship with Pakistan is in no way driven by it.”