Loose Nukes For Islamic Extremists?

Pakistan is building more atomic weapons, which our CIA believes are secure for now even though we don’t know where they are.  But should Islamic extremists threaten to topple that fragile government, the U.S. is reportedly preparing to capture and relocate that arsenal.

A frequently expressed concern is that Pakistan will fall to Islamic extremists and that nation’s nearly 100 atomic weapons will then belong to radicals like al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. CIA director Leon Panetta told Congress he is confident Pakistan has a “… pretty secure approach to try to protect these weapons.”  But he admits, “The last thing we want is to have the Taliban have access to nuclear weapons in Pakistan.”

The U.S. government works with Pakistan’s atomic guardians, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, providing them special atomic warhead locks known as permissive access links. We have also given Islamabad more than $100 million to help secure the weapons and sensitive materials from seizure by extremists.

But Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is still vulnerable. Pakistan is battling a growing Islamic insurgency with links to al Qaeda and the Taliban.  Bruce Riedel, a Brookings institution scholar, warns Pakistan “… has more terrorists per square mile than anyplace else on earth, and it has a nuclear weapons program that is growing faster than anyplace else on earth.”  That’s a volatile mix, especially when one considers there are rogue elements inside Pakistan’s military and intelligence service who side with the extremists.

Why then is Pakistan building more weapons?  Perhaps Islamabad is trying to keep up with its atomic competitor, India.  Nuclear weapons corrode, which diminishes their reliability.  The Pakistanis may also want to increase their arsenal to provide more versatility — lighter, smaller and more explosive.

Last week, Pakistan’s drive to invest in newer nuclear arms came up during a Senate hearing. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked whether he had seen evidence of an increase in the size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.  “Yes,” Mullen said, but he didn’t elaborate.  

This response shocked lawmakers who are considering large aid packages to help Pakistan through the current chaos. Congress is considering $3 billion over five years to help Pakistan’s military fight the counterinsurgency war and another $7.5 billion to boost that country’s ailing economy.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) asked Mullen, “Do we have any type of control factors that would be built in, in terms of where future American money would be going, as it addresses what I just asked about?”  In other words, is American money being used to build more Pakistani warheads?

The Obama administration told Congress their intent was to assure Pakistan used our aid appropriately. Of course, American dollars spent for one purpose could free up funds for other purposes, such as Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

The announcement that Pakistan is increasing its atomic arsenal comes on the heels of a Fox News story indicating the U.S. has a detailed plan for infiltrating Pakistan to secure its nuclear warheads if the country falls under the control of Islamic extremists.

That report indicates the operation would be conducted by Joint Special Operations Command, operating in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s western border.  “We have plans to secure them ourselves if things get out of hand,” said a U.S. intelligence source quoted by Fox News.

For now, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal seems to be safe but growing without explanation.  It should remain secure as long as reliable personnel and procedures are followed and the government doesn’t implode.  But should “things get out of hand,” then JSOC operatives are ready to conduct a high risk mission to find and relocate them to a secure area.

Obama-Netanyahu Meeting Produced Little

The much-anticipated May 18 meeting between President Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decreased the Jewish state’s security while providing the leaders little more than an opportunity to air their differences regarding the intractable Palestinian situation and Iran’s emerging atomic weapons threat.  

Judging from their statements, neither man departed from his publicly-announced positions.  Obama called for a quick restart of negotiations on issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians.  He restated his goal “to achieve a two-state solution” and reminded Netanyahu of Israel’s commitment to cease settlement activity in the West Bank.

Netanyahu endorsed self-government for the Palestinians but refused to endorse Obama’s “two-state” proposal.  The prime minister indicated he is ready to resume peace talks, while insisting any agreement must include Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

But three previous Israeli governments sought to achieve peace based on a “two-state solution,” and all failed.  Netanyahu ran for election promising to destroy the terrorist Hamas movement in Gaza and not to create another Palestinian state in the West Bank.  And he has refused to even enter negotiations with the Palestinians unless they accept his pre-condition: recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state.

Obama and Netanyahu both know the Palestinians will not accept the pre-condition.  The Gaza-based Palestinian Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said his movement would not recognize Israel, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  Abbas also insists Netanyahu must endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state.  It appears that all sides are at an impasse.

The prime minister came to the White House to focus Obama on the Iranian atomic threat.  But the president promised Netanyahu no timeline to resolve the crisis — only his hope to see unspecified progress on the atomic issue by the end of the year.  

But time is working against Jerusalem.  Israeli intelligence believes Tehran could have an atomic weapon by the end of 2009, while the U.S. intelligence community believes Iran is at least two years from possessing a nuclear weapon.

Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security advisor, paraphrased what the prime minister intended to say about the Iranian threat.  “This is clear not only because this is an existential issue as far as the security of Israel is concerned, but because Iran is progressing all the time toward nuclear military capability.”

Obama likely repeated to Netanyahu what he told Newsweek, “I’ve been very clear that I don’t take any options off the table with respect to Iran.”  He wants “… to offer Iran an opportunity to align itself with international norms and international rules.”  But “if it doesn’t work,” Obama said, “the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community.”

It appears Netanyahu is willing to give Obama the opportunity to pursue the diplomatic path at least until the end of the year.  But later this fall expect Israel will make a decision to attack Iran with or without American assistance if the atomic mullahs fail to cave to Obama’s diplomacy.

Monday’s meeting kicked these critical issues down the road and keeps Israel’s security in doubt.  The Israeli-Palestinian peace process will remain deadlocked and marked by occasional uprisings.  The Iranian atomic issue will fester until either Israel attacks Tehran’s nuclear sites setting that nation’s atomic program back a few years or Jerusalem accepts the atomic mullahs and the consequences.