WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. defense official has dubbed "wildly hypothetical and speculative" some recent reports about Washington's contingency plans for a potential military intervention to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons from extremists (see GSN, May 15).
To the Defense Department official's knowledge, "there is no active discussion" in key Obama administration policy circles regarding the possibility of U.S. forces entering Pakistan uninvited and taking control of nuclear warheads or related materials.
"Intervention in any sovereign territory, especially a country that's allied with us in this war against extremism, is wildly hypothetical and speculative," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Global Security Newswire on May 27. "We ... are fully confident of [Pakistan's] ability to control their assets, to include their weapons."
At the same time, the official would not rule out the possibility that plans for an emergency operation might at some point be drawn up in the Pentagon or at Central Command, which is responsible for any U.S. military activities in Pakistan. However, policy planning is not focused today on exercising such an approach, said the senior official.
Concern has been on the rise lately that violent extremists in Pakistan might seize control of nuclear materials or weapons, a scenario that U.S. and allied leaders have long cited as a worst-case possibility. Worries were magnified recently when armed Taliban opponents of Pakistan's central government took over a town just 60 miles from the capital city of Islamabad (see GSN, May 4).
The Pakistani military has since launched a campaign to successfully beat back the Taliban forces. However, the continued instability has given rise to some renewed calls for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies to develop contingency plans for an intervention aimed at securing Pakistan's estimated 60 nuclear weapons and related material.
Al-Qaeda leaders and other violent extremists have voiced interest in overthrowing the Pakistani government and obtaining nuclear arms, even if doing so has remained out of reach.
"Urged by a senior al-Qaeda ideologue to take over Pakistan, members of jihadi Internet forums have begun to examine the possibility of controlling Pakistan's nuclear weapons," counterterrorism expert Abdul Hameed Bakier wrote in a May 26 piece in the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor.
However, some South Asia experts seriously doubt the feasibility of such an incident ever occurring.
"I don't think that's a likely scenario to begin with," said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center.
Despite recent gains by Taliban extremists, the "writ of the government" can be recovered and expanded, he said in a May 8 telephone interview. "But it will take seize-and-hold tactics by the army and decent governance and reconstruction, while the army is protecting these outlying areas from the guys wearing the black turbans," Krepon said.
In late April, President Barack Obama said he was "gravely concerned" about the potential for Pakistani government instability.
"We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don't end up having a nuclear-armed militant state," the president said at a press conference marking his first 100 days in office.
Still, Obama said he remained "confident" that militants could not seize Islamabad's nuclear weapons. Bolstering the Pakistani army and the government's ability to deliver basic services to the people is the best way of ensuring that the weapons stay out of extremists' hands, he said.
"His words are not reassuring in light of the Taliban's military and political gains throughout Pakistan," John Bolton, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush administration, wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece three days later.
Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, laid out two potential scenarios under which Pakistani army control over nuclear weapons or materials might be compromised.
First, Islamabad's military could be infiltrated by Taliban sympathizers who allow extremists access to one or more weapons, according to Bolton. Under a second scenario, the government might collapse, potentially leaving a power vacuum that opens the door to "a radical Islamicist regime in Pakistan [that] would control a substantial nuclear weapons capacity," he wrote.
It might be more likely that extremists would successfully snatch nuclear materials -- potentially usable in a radiological "dirty bomb" -- or attack a civil nuclear power facility, according to some experts.
In one online forum, violent extremists "launched a new project of research on nuclear installations around the world entitled 'Nuclear targets and facilities to be attacked,'" Bakier stated in his article. "The research begins by mapping the 17 nuclear facilities and installations spread over Pakistan."
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who until early this year ran the Energy Department's intelligence directorate, recently said an emerging concern is that extremists might intercept nuclear materials, such as spent nuclear reactor fuel, as it is transported inside Pakistan (see GSN, May 28).
"Any time sensitive weapons or material are on the move, they're inherently less secure than when they're not moving," Krepon said in a second May interview.
However, that does not mean Pakistan is destined to lose control of its nuclear assets, he said.
That view has not stopped Bolton from urging Washington to plan for a possible emergency intervention.
"We should contemplate whether and how to extract as many nuclear weapons as possible from Pakistan, thus somewhat mitigating the consequences of regime collapse," he wrote.
Bolton did not lay out precisely how Islamabad's weapons might be removed from the nation. However, one intelligence expert who has consulted with the U.S. government on the matter said he has some idea.
"There are U.S. military exercises of all types being planned to examine the possibility of U.S. forces going into a variety of crisis situations," Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official, said in an interview last month. "One would be naive to believe that the U.S. has not undertaken detailed examination of the potential loss of Pakistan's nuclear weapons to the Taliban or al-Qaeda or an extremist coup."
His remarks followed an article published nearly two years ago in which a pair of national security experts laid out the prospective details of an armed intervention.
"One possible plan would be a special forces operation with the limited goal of preventing Pakistan's nuclear materials and warheads from getting into the wrong hands," Frederick Kagan and Michael O'Hanlon wrote in a November 2007 New York Times op-ed. "Somehow, American forces would have to team with Pakistanis to secure critical sites and possibly to move the material to a safer place."
Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The two analysts also described a second, "broader option" that could involve "a sizable combat force" from the United States and its allies shoring up whatever supportive remnants of the Pakistani military remained in the event of a collapse of government rule.
The Pakistani military could be expected to resist any U.S. attempt to enter the nation uninvited, Shaffer said.
"Just imagine a scenario in which there is a belief that there is an imminent loss of nuclear weapons. Wouldn't you think if the Pakistanis thought we had a capability to go in and grab [the weapons or material] they would do something to stop that?" he said. "The Pakistanis have a legitimate country, legitimate borders and I would expect them to defend their sovereignty."
Kagan and O'Hanlon similarly found that stabilizing the nation would be out of reach for the United States and its allies without Pakistani military support.
"With 160 million people, Pakistan is more than five times the size of Iraq. It would take a long time to move large numbers of American forces halfway across the world," according to their 2007 opinion piece. "And unless we had precise information about the location of all of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials, we could not rely on bombing or using special forces to destroy them."
Still, Shaffer believes military intervention scenarios should be considered.
"While difficult, it would be within the realm of the 'possible' to go about securing weapons," he said. "We may not, in a situation of this level of gravity, be going in alone."
Given Pakistan's vast geography, "I don't see how you do it," said one retired military officer who has participated in simulations of the problem. A nuclear weapon or dirty bomb could easily be hidden in a van or truck that would be next to impossible for U.S. forces to locate, particularly in Pakistan's forbidding mountainous terrain or huge population centers, said the former officer, who asked not to be named in this article.
"It would require exceptional intelligence and incredible luck," he said.
Krepon voiced serious concern that stoking fears about Pakistan losing control is both unwarranted and counterproductive.
"I'm not ceding the point in the argument that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is about to be taken over," said Krepon, a scholar in politics at the University of Virginia. "I don't believe it is."
Moreover, Krepon said, Pakistani leaders have had a long-running fear that the United States might seize or destroy their nuclear deterrent. Debate over a possible U.S. intervention has apparently led to increased secrecy in Islamabad about the weapons and typically an aversion to accepting U.S. help in securing them, he said.
"Every time John Bolton writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, saying we ought to seriously pursue this option or at least plan for it, then it feeds right into this [Pakistani] anxiety about pre-emption," he told GSN. "And the more the Pakistani military are concerned about pre-emption, the harder it becomes to get them to consolidate their nuclear capability."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said Islamabad's nuclear arsenal is "widely dispersed," and others have noted that the U.S. government lacks a full understanding of where the weapons are located (see GSN, April 24).
"Fewer locations are more defensible than many, many locations," Krepon said. "But you don't go to fewer locations if you are worried about surprise attack."
The risks of planning any U.S. military intervention far outweigh any imagined benefits, he said.
"I think these plans -- if they exist and I'm not sure that they do -- [are] unlikely to be successfully executed and would result in multiple mushroom clouds," Krepon said. "So I think this is a bad idea, and I think it's a bad idea even to talk about it."
The retired military officer urged, though, that the Obama administration begin thinking through how it would handle the situation if a nuclear weapon went missing in Pakistan or elsewhere, given the inadvisability of a U.S. intervention.
"If it gets out, the probability of finding it is very, very low," the officer said. "I think that has to be part of the discussion."