In a recent controversial article in The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh points to growing radicalization within Pakistan’s military that could endanger the security of its nuclear arsenal…
Though the United States has repeatedly stated that it has no intention of seizing Pakistani nuclear weapons or materials and maintains confidence in the security of Pakistan’s arsenal, Hersh reports that the Obama administration has been negotiating “highly sensitive” understandings that would allow specially-trained American units to provide added security for the Pakistani arsenal in a crisis. According to Hersh, the secrecy surrounding these agreements arises from a growing antipathy and history of distrust toward America within Pakistan, which has only intensified as a result of U.S. pressure on the Pakistan Army to take more aggressive action against Taliban enclaves inside Pakistan.
Hersh is right that the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is cause for concern. Though nuclear safeguards are in place, primarily to keep a confrontation with India from escalating too quickly, these same safeguards could make Pakistan’s arsenal more vulnerable to terrorists. Extensive procedures that require warheads to be stored separate from their triggers and delivery vehicles leave these elements most exposed, as they are constantly being moved and reassembled. Andrew St. Denis noted in August that most of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities lie in and around areas populated by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen recently wrote in Arms Control Today about the “lethal proximity between terrorists, extremists, and nuclear weapons insiders” in Pakistan. “Insiders have facilitated terrorist attacks. Suicide bombings have occurred at air force bases that reportedly serve as nuclear weapons storage sites. It is difficult to ignore such trends,” he said.
Michael Krepon, however, points out that Hersh’s record, though relatively solid in other respects, is mediocre at best with regard to Pakistan. Unfortunately, writes Krepon, Hersh’s “sourcing is weak and his conclusions are suspect.” If his story were true, “those ‘specially trained American units’ can now forget about helping Pakistan to secure its arsenal: Public revelation of such an agreement makes it about as palatable within Pakistan as changing that nation’s religious preference.”