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US has no good option in a Pakistan nuclear 'nightmare'

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Nov 13, 2007
The US armed forces are virtually powerless to prevent Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from falling into Islamist hands if the political crisis in Islamabad spins out of control, analysts warned.

Instead, they said, Washington can do little but help to resolve the crisis and preserve its strong ties with Pakistan's pro-Western military elite, whether or not General Pervez Musharraf stays in power.

"There's no good military option at all," Daniel Markey, a former US government policy planner for South Asia, told AFP on Tuesday in Washington.

It would be an "incredibly ugly scenario," he said, for US forces to try to find and secure the nuclear sites in the event of an Islamist takeover because they lack the intelligence needed to do so in such a large country.

"Having some certainty of finding them is just, I think, out of the realm of reality," said Markey, a former State Department official who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

Averting such a "nightmare scenario," he added, "means having a good working relationship" with the army, as has been the case for years.

"We shouldn't kid ourselves that we can work with Pakistan without working with their army and that doesn't mean we have to back a dictator."

If the US government decides to drop Musharraf, he warned, it will have to be careful to avoid burning ties with the institution he heads. "That's the difficult balancing act."

Musharraf's deputy in the army, General Ashfaq Kiyani, would be his obvious successor but the analyst said it is not certain that such a transition would go smoothly, even though he has reasonably good ties with Washington.

Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 bloodless coup and who became a frontline US ally in the war on terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks, insists there is nothing to worry about.

In an interview Tuesday with Fox News radio, Musharraf said Pakistan's nuclear weapons are under "total custodial controls," citing security measures in place since 2000.

"We created a strategic planning division and we have a national command authority which is overall organization institution into development and employment of strategic assets," he said.

Pakistan has amassed an estimated 50 nuclear weapons since detonating its first atomic devices in May 1998.

Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, doubted there was much of a military option.

"The idea that somehow we're going to step in, I think that's a very remote possibility," Spector said from his office in Washington.

And for now, he said, the US government is probably seeking reassurance from Musharraf that his chain of command is in order or that it endures if there is an orderly transfer of power.

"Only if there's a complete breakdown in society, would there be an issue. Even then, I think you'll find a cadre, a very loyal military who protect the assets because it's the patrimony of the country," he said.

Andrew Koch, a defense and security analyst with the consulting firm Scribe Strategies and Advisors, said Pakistan's atomic weapons are for now in the hards of a "very professional, pro-Western elite" operating a secure network.

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which are making inroads in northwestern Pakistan, would have trouble seizing materiel in a raid because the fissile weapons cores are held separate from the weapons, he said.

"You'd have to knock down two facilities to get both parts," he added.

The military personnel involved in the nuclear program are also closely vetted for sympathies with the Islamists, he added.

However, he said some scientists associated with the nuclear program are suspected of harboring extremist sentiments and could leak secrets to terrorists or anti-Western regimes, even if they do not smuggle out weapons.

Such a risk would increase the longer political instability lasts, he said.

The reputation of Pakistan, the world's only known nuclear-armed Muslim country, has been tarnished with the sale of atomic secrets on a global black market headed by its disgraced chief nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Khan confessed in 2004 to passing atomic secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. He was pardoned by Musharraf but remains under virtual house arrest in Islamabad.

In the longer term, Koch feared that Pakistan's professional military class could be compromised if the country becomes increasingly pro-Taliban and anti-Western.

In the ultimate "doomsday" or "nightmare" scenario, he feared that the Pakistani military would see its loyalities split if the government falls and Islamists and other factions struggle to fill the void.

He said "there's always the ultimate option of trying some sort of raid to snatch the weapons" but this would be difficult because "we don't have absolute certainty we know where all of Pakistan's weapons are kept."

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