August 10, 2007Foreign AffairsSecurity

Watching Pakistan’s nukes…closely

When the cookie crumbles

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

CNNs Barbara Starr reports that US military intelligence officers are assessing what is likely to happen in the event of a political crisis in Pakistan. Commenting on that report, Jeffrey Lewis writes:

Yet, if the goal is to contact (Pakistani military) commanders in control of the weapons after a coup or assassination, a few hours is real time, as Starr inadvertantly suggests when she reports the key question of the estimate: ”[W]hat would happen and who would control the weapons in the hours after any change in government in case Musharraf were killed or overthrown.” [Emphasis mine, of course.]

So, my sense is that we probably have reasonably good sense of where the weapons are located, but a relatively poor sense of how custodial arrangements might shift in the event of a coup or an assassination. [Arms Control Wonk]Unless things have changed, the warheads and the delivery systems are not kept in a mated” state. The geographic separation between them is part of the command and control system in place in Pakistan. While that reduces the chances of renegade’ military officers securing the ability to launch nuclear missiles, it is quite possible for them to hold out a threat. It is unclear if the United States or India have the capability to acquire the kind of intelligence to be able to call that bluff. But again, renegade’ Pakistani military officials may themselves be susceptible to being bluffed—given their intelligence too is likely to be limited—which will put the brakes on any intentions they may have of nuclear blackmail.

Does this mean the world should breathe easy? Not quite. While the possibility of a nuclear attack on a foreign country or on foreign troops is relatively low, there is a greater likelihood that fissile material, warheads or delivery systems can disappear’ and end up in the wrong hands. So although there are no news reports of Indian intelligence agencies watching the proceedings, they are quite likely to have their eyes on the ball.

It should hardly surprise anyone that the Americans are watching the nukes. So why did they tell CNN now?

Update: Chidanand Rajghatta offers an answer:

The calculated leak about Washington knowing the location of Pakistani nukes, a claim made for the first time, is double-edged. While it provides some assurance to the world (including India) that the US has a fix on the weapons, it also enables a tetchy Pakistan to take remedial action.

Like the Scandal in Bohemia, some would say.

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