The Obama administration is reluctant to confess publicly that its ability to prevent Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from falling into Taliban or al Qaeda hands is in doubt.
Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta came closest to admitting this Monday 18.5, when he talked to a forum organized by the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Asked if Pakistan's nukes were more secure than those in the former Soviet Union, he replied:
“…we do try to understand where these are located. We don't, frankly, have intelligence about where they are all located.”
If the US does not know where they are all located, how can it be sure they are safe? To that, the CIA chief replied: “We are confident that the Pakistanis have a pretty secure approach to try to protect these weapons.” But he added: “This is something we will continue to watch very closely.”
This confidence was not shared by members of US Congress when they deliberated US military aid to Pakistan, judging from the questions they put to defense secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. Asked if it was it true that Pakistan had recently been rapidly increasing its nuclear arsenal, the Admiral answered with a monosyllabic “Yes”.
Both were asked why Pakistan was moved to increase its nuclear arsenal now of all times, when it is engaged in battle with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
This question leads inevitably to two more:
1. Is Pakistan diverting US military aid funding for the war on Taliban to enlarging its nuclear weapons stock at a time when the CIA director's admits that Washington is ignorant of its whereabouts?
2. Does not topping up this arsenal aggravate the danger of the seizure of part thereof by the Taliban and al-Qaeda?
The US Special Operations unit can't be in two places at once
Since these concerns are self-evident, Obama administration officials have been trying to lay them to rest by denying that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is at risk of falling into terrorist hands, because a super-secret commando unit of the US Special Operations Command headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C. is standing by on the Afghan-Pakistan border after being trained specifically to seize Pakistan's nuclear stockpile before it can fall into terrorist hands.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and counter-terrorism sources note that this assurance does not take into account that the covert special operations unit deployed on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border lands of Waziristan have not managed to rein in the growing strength and spread of the Taliban and al Qaeda from their lairs in this lawless region. So they can hardly be expected to secure the several Pakistani nuclear sites in Northwest Pakistan.
Furthermore, the US unit's transfer to those sites would leave the way open for thousands of Waziristan-based Taliban and al Qaeda to swarm out of their hideouts in the tribal lands and head for Pakistan's nuclear facilities and arsenal, only part of which they have so far managed to control. They would certainly outnumber the covert US commando unit and might even put them to siege.
In the last issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly of May 15, we reported exclusively that Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh had warned US President Barack Obama earlier this month that, according to his intelligence input, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are already in partial control of two Pakistani nuclear sites. He mentioned the Kohat airbase, only 50 km south of Peshawar, and the Wah airbase, near the city of Kamara.
All it would take is a handful of renegades
Then, Monday, May 18, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari announced he was planning to open another front against the Taliban around the city of Darra Adam Khel (read previous article).
Our military sources note that control of this city is the key to commanding the main roads from Peshawar to Kohat, Kamara and their environs. The trouble is that six months ago, Taliban seized control of these roads. After using them for some years to haul supplies to American troops in Afghanistan, the US command was forced to seek other host nations (in Central Asia) and alternate routes for transiting its supplies.
Since Pashtun tribes dominate this region and they are loyal to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, President Zardari is not really expected to be foolhardy enough to make good on his boast to open a new anti-Taliban front at Darra Adam Khel. Even he does, the cards will be stacked heavily against the Pakistani army.
Another grave concern for Washington is Pakistan's shady record on proliferation since the black market trafficking days of the father of its nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan.
Islamabad's nuclear program, which employs some 3,000 people with knowledge of and access to technical drawings, technological hardware and stockpiles of weapons-grade enriched uranium, is as leaky as ever before. It would take one well-placed insider or a handful of renegades willing to pass this technology to the Taliban or al Qaeda to bring both frighteningly close to a nuclear capability.
For this reason, even the tightest US and Pakistani tabs on human resources numbering thousands cannot guarantee the program's security. The Pakistani military, its elite units and Inter-Services-Intelligence agency are known to be heavily infiltrated by Islamists and their sympathizers. It is therefore impossible to be sure that a handful of nuclear experts will not cross over to Taliban or al Qaeda, taking their knowledge with them -whether for ideology or money, or both.