(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is due to visit Washington this week amid growing concerns about the safety of his country’s nuclear weapons, and proliferation experts and regional analysts are urging the U.S. government to prioritize the issue.
Ahead of his visit, and following stepped-up pressure from top U.S. officials, Zardari approved a sustained military offensive against Taliban-linked extremists in the country’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Emboldened by an accord negotiated with the government allowing the imposition of shari’a in part of the NWFP encompassing the Swat valley, the extremists had begun pushing into neighboring areas, and the army operation has stemmed that advance.
The continuing instability has stoked speculation about the possibility of radical Islamists taking power in Islamabad, or of military officers with Islamist sympathies seizing power from a faltering civilian government.
Islamabad has dismissed fears about extremists taking control of the country and its nuclear weapons (estimates of the size of the stockpile vary widely, with the Carnegie Endowment estimating 60 warheads.)
“The specter of extremist Taliban taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan is not only a gross exaggeration, it could also lead to misguided policy prescriptions from Pakistan’s allies, including our friends in Washington,” ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani wrote in an op-ed last week.
President Obama said at a press conference on Wednesday that he was confident the U.S. could “make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure,” adding that the Pakistan military “recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands.”
Some experts believe the danger goes beyond the weapons themselves, and also applies to hazardous nuclear-related material as well as vulnerable facilities.
According to a new report from the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, recent satellite imagery shows continuing expansion of a plutonium-based reactor complex at Khushab.
The report authors cast doubt on the authorities’ ability to secure the weapons-grade material being produced at such facilities.
“In the current climate, with Pakistan’s leadership under duress from daily acts of violence by insurgent Taliban forces and organized political opposition, the security of any nuclear material produced in these reactors is in question,” said the institute’s David Albright and Paul Brannan.
“Current U.S. policy, focused primarily on shoring up Pakistan’s resources for fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, has had the unfortunate effect of turning the United States into more of a concerned by-stander of Pakistan’s expansion of its ability to produce nuclear weapons.”
ISIS urged the Obama administration to urge both Pakistan and rival India to suspend the production of fissile material as an interim step, and to join negotiations on a treaty banning the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Regional security analyst and former Indian counter terrorism chief Bahukutumbi Raman said Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile was tightly secured, with U.S. assistance and monitoring.
Because of this, he believed the danger of them falling into Taliban hands was low, unless the militants captured power in Islamabad – and he did not believe they had the capability of defeating the Pakistan military and taking control of areas beyond the “Pashtun belt.”
Raman, director of the Institute For Topical Studies in Chennai, argued that of greater concern to India, Afghanistan and other countries in the region was the possibility of militants – in a bid to cause panic and display their prowess – attacking poorly-guarded nuclear facilities and triggering a health and environmental disaster.
“A terrorist-caused Chernobyl is a danger of greater possibility than the terrorists capturing the nuclear arsenal.”
Unlike the weapons arsenal and key uranium and plutonium facilities at Kahuta and Khushab, the security of some establishments, such as a nuclear power station built with Chinese help – at Chashma in Punjab, near the NWFP border – and sites where nuclear waste is stored, had not received much attention either from the Pakistanis or the Americans, he said.
“Since the Chinese are associated with some of them, they would not like the U.S. to have any role in their physical security,” Raman added.
“It is in India’s interest to nudge the U.S. into taking more interest in the physical security of these establishments in order to prevent [an attack].”
He called for the U.S. and Indian governments to enhance bilateral cooperation on the nuclear issue, including possibly setting up a hotline and joint body to monitor developments in Pakistan.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and senior U.S. arms control official, said that to prevent nuclear weapons slipping out of military control and reaching terrorist hands, or the scenario of a radical Islamist regime in Islamabad with a nuclear weapons capacity, the administration should move Pakistan “to the top of our strategic agenda, albeit closely related to Afghanistan.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Bolton argued that the U.S. should “strengthen pro-American elements in Pakistan’s military so they can purge dangerous Islamicists from their ranks; roll back Taliban advances; and, together with our increased efforts in Afghanistan, decisively defeat the militants on either side of the border.”
Obama’s talks with Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week “provide a clear opportunity to take the hard steps necessary to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and defeat the Taliban,” Bolton said.