While the Pentagon has asserted that the US is "comfortable" over the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal and Islamabad has rubbished a report that militants attacked its nuclear facilities at least three times, an erstwhile CIA analyst has argued that what should elicit more concern among the international community is terrorists in Pakistan acquiring material for a "dirty bomb".
Lisa Curtis, now head of the conservative Heritage Foundation's South Asia Program, but who in an earlier incarnation was the CIA analyst dealing with the subcontinent, argued that while the recently released study by British academic Shaun Gregory that claims Pakistani nuclear complexes were attacked on three occasions in the last two year has stirred fresh concerns about the safety and security of that country's nuclear assets, "there is little need to panic about this issue, at least in the short-term."
She acknowledged that "ensuring that Pakistani nukes stay out of the hands of terrorists certainly must be priority number one for the US government," but asserted that "before jumping to conclusions that Al Qaeda is about to grab a Pakistani nuke," it should be noted that that the US "has been assisting Pakistan with improving the security of its nuclear assets since 9/11" to the tune of $100 million.
Curtis pointed out that these money have been spent on programmes "to increase personnel reliability and to establish permissive action links on nuclear facilities".
She also said that it should also not be forgotten that "even before 9/11, the Pakistan army had an interest in safeguarding its nuclear facilities and therefore almost certainly has dispersed its nuclear assets throughout the country, making it nearly impossible to terrorists to gain access to an assembled nuclear weapon, especially through a single violent attack."
However, Curtis said that "a more plausible scenario is one in which extremists infiltrate the nuclear establishment slowly over time and gain access to nuclear materials or technology that could help them eventually build a nuclear device themselves or even a dirty bomb."
She said that "the fact that elements of Pakistan's army and intelligence service retain links to extremists who they view as strategic assets in pursuing goals vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India opens the door for the unwelcome possibility of Pakistani officials with access to nuclear informationdeveloping sympathy for al Qaeda goals."
Curtis recalled that "earlier revelations about a group of former Pakistani military officials and nuclear scientists who met with Osama bin Laden in August 2001 remind us of the very real possibility of Al-Qaeda gaining nuclear know-how from former Pakistani officials with access to such information."
She called on the US to "have in place contingency strategies in the event the Pakistan military becomes less capable of protecting its nuclear assets."
Curtis said that such a scenario could develop "if the Pakistani military begins to lose resolve in fighting the Taliban in the northwest parts of the country."
She nonetheless conceded that "this seems rather unlikely at the moment," particularly since the Pakistani military "has demonstrated its ability to oust the Taliban from the Swat Valley, thereby significantly diminishing the possibility of the Taliban gaining increased legitimacy and influence within the country."
Curtis said the "recent apparent elimination of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone missile strike last week also has given a fillip to Pakistan's efforts against the extremists."
Meanwhile, Michael O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution and a leading security analyst, regularly appearing before the US Congress to testify on international security matters, said it's highly unlikely the US has any idea where they are "or how many we think as a government know the location of."
However, he said, "There is a decent chance that we know where some of them are," and argued that "for one thing, we worked with the Pakistani military on their security procedures."
But, O'Hanlon said, "They are sensitive about that because they don't necessarily want us to know where all of them are. But I think there's a decent chance just reasoning from broad principles that we cannot see the weapons themselves but see the people and the institutions around them and have some idea where Pakistan might choose to keep such important assets of the state."
However, he reiterated that "there's no way we know where all of them are. As a matter of principle, the Pakistanis will make sure we don't, and also, weapons could be in transit."
In the event of a potential collapse of Pakistan and/or the country imploding, O'Hanlon said he believed "they're probably well enough secured underground that any kind of American air strike option would be probably unpromising which is just as well."
He said he could only see the US "doing anything on this issue under worst-case scenarios that would require attention to it with the active collaboration of the Pakistani military."
"In other words, if we could be of any help, it would only be in the context of a situation in which we were asked to help. No one wants to talk about that day to daythe Pakistanis certainly don't want to."
But, O'Hanlon argued that "because of the physics of this, because of the nature of the problem, I cannot imagine us being helpful unless the Pakistanis themselves say we've got a big problem and we need assistance perhaps in the form of special ground troops to help secure the sites of perhaps to help the Pakistanis move them to a different part of the country in a secure way."
O'Hanlon declared, "That's the most important point. I cannot imagine unilateral American action on this."
Bruce Riedel, also a Senior Fellow at Brookings, and co-author of the Obama Administration's Af-Pak strategic review, and a former CIA and National Security Council official, agreed with O'Hanlon, and asserted that "it's a fantasy to believe that there is some kind of an American military option which secures Pakistan's nuclear weapons in the face of opposition of the Pakistani Army. It doesn't exist."
He said that "With Pakistan our levers are very limited. The problem is enormous. With Afghanistan the problem is enormous too, but we do have levers."
Riedel said even more importantly that that, "The Afghan authorities starting with President Karzai and including key members of his cabinet and including key members of his military are not conflicted about this -- there is no ambivalence among the Afghans as there is on the Pakistan side about who the enemy is or what the outcome is."