Nuclear Fears Fuel GOP Debate on U.S. Aid to Pakistan

(Nov. 23) - U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) speaks on Tuesday at a Republican presidential debate in Washington. Bachmann expressed concern over the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in defending U.S. financial support for the South Asian state (AP Photo/Evan Vucci).
(Nov. 23) - U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) speaks on Tuesday at a Republican presidential debate in Washington. Bachmann expressed concern over the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in defending U.S. financial support for the South Asian state (AP Photo/Evan Vucci).

WASHINGTON -- Fear that terrorists might gain access to Pakistani nuclear weapons played into a Tuesday clash between Republican presidential hopefuls over whether the United States should continue providing economic and security assistance to the South Asian state (see GSN, Nov. 18).

Pakistan has formally backed U.S. counterterrorism efforts since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has received billions of dollars in aid from Washington. Osama bin Laden’s death in Pakistan earlier this year, though, prompted speculation that officials there might have knowingly sheltered the al-Qaeda leader. The Obama administration has also pressed Islamabad to step up operations against the Haqqani network and other militant organizations.

Texas Governor Rick Perry called at a Republican presidential debate in Washington for an end to all U.S. aid to Pakistan (see GSN, Sept. 23).

“The bottom line is that they've showed us time after time that they can't be trusted. And until Pakistan clearly shows that they have America's best interests in mind, I would not send them one penny, period,” Perry said.

Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) defended U.S. assistance to Pakistan, asserting that extremists have already made “six attempts” against the country’s nuclear facilities.

Six attacks have taken place near installations known or thought to host nuclear activities, but the strikes were not believed to directly target those sensitive operations, according to a Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center analysis cited by CNN (see GSN, June 14). Islamabad maintains that its atomic assets -- estimated this year to include between 90 and 110 nuclear warheads -- are secure and has played down international fears that militants might steal a warhead or weapon-grade material from its nuclear stockpile.

“The Obama policy of keeping your fingers crossed is not working in Pakistan,” Bachmann said, adding the country is “too nuclear to fail.”

She later called Perry’s stance “highly naive.”

“These are nuclear weapons all across this nation, and potentially al-Qaeda could get a hold of these weapons. These weapons could find their way … out of Pakistan into New York City or into Washington, D.C., and a nuclear weapon could be set off in this city,” she said.

Pakistan does not assign top priority to U.S. security interests, but those interests are still served in “an uneven actor state” by maintaining “some sort of presence there,” Bachmann argued.

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman voiced similar alarm earlier in the discussion over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. He called for greater use of U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles in the country.

Separately, the candidates voiced divisions over U.S. involvement in a potential Israeli strike against Iranian atomic facilities. Washington, Jerusalem and other capitals have charged that Tehran’s ostensibly civilian nuclear program is geared toward establishing a weapon capability (see related GSN story, today). The U.N. nuclear watchdog in a recent report noted "serious concerns" that Iran might be operating a weapon-related nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were reported earlier this month to be pursuing consensus among Cabinet officials over the potential use of force against Iran (see GSN, Nov. 2). Barak later said his country had not finalized any plan to attack the Persian Gulf state.

Businessman Herman Cain expressed tentative support for military action while raising questions about the feasibility of such a strike.

“[Iran] is a very mountainous region,” he said. “The latest reports say that there may be 40 different locations, and I would want to make sure that we had a good idea from intelligence sources where these are located.”

Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) said as president he would not offer U.S. support for an Israeli strike on Iran. He expressed doubt that Israel would authorize such an attack, but suggested Jerusalem should “suffer the consequences” of any such decision.

“Israel has 200, 300 nuclear missiles, and they can take cares of themselves,” he said.

Bachmann said Iran has threatened to strike Israel, potentially with nuclear force.

“Just before [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] came to the U.N. General Assembly, he said that he wanted to eradicate Israel from the face of the Earth,” Bachmann said. “He has said that if he has a nuclear weapon, he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, he will use it against the United States of America.”

Addressing the potential for economic sanctions to curb Iranian nuclear efforts, Perry called for the United States to blacklist the country’s central bank (see related GSN story, today). The Obama administration this week declared the bank a “primary money laundering concern” without imposing direct penalties on the institution.

Directly penalizing the Iranian central bank is considered a possible means of dramatically boosting Iran's economic isolation, but also as a gamble that could dramatically raise international petroleum costs or even prompt an armed retaliation by Tehran.

Such measures are “what we need to do before we ever start having any conversations about a military strike, is to use every sanction that we have,” Perry said. “And when you sanction the Iranian central bank, that will shut down that economy. At that particular point in time, they truly have to deal with the United States.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested ousting Iran’s leadership in a bid to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear deterrent. “Replacing the regime before they get a nuclear weapon -- without a war -- beats replacing the regime with a war, which beats allowing them to have a nuclear weapon,” he said.

When the candidates were asked about other national security concerns, Gingrich cited a terrorist WMD strike or an electromagnetic pulse attack among the top dangers facing the United States.

November 23, 2011
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WASHINGTON -- Fear that terrorists might gain access to Pakistani nuclear weapons played into a Tuesday clash between Republican presidential hopefuls over whether the United States should continue providing economic and security assistance to the South Asian state (see GSN, Nov. 18).

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