When Barack Obama becomes president next week, the thorny matter of Pakistan is expected to be high on his foreign policy agenda. Not only is Pakistan both a haven and target for violent Islamic extremists, but it is also a nuclear weapons state. The Pakistan government is trying to assure hostile and friendly governments alike that its nuclear arsenal is secure.
If there is one common hallmark of nuclear arms programs around the world, it is high secrecy. As a rule, governments don't like talking about their nuclear weapons, and like talking about the security surrounding them even less.
But lately top Pakistani officials have been talking to selected foreign journalists and researchers about this most sensitive topic. Most recently, New York Times reporter David Sanger secured an on-the-record interview with Khalid Kidwai, the Pakistani general in charge of nuclear security, for his new book on the challenges President Barack Obama will confront.
The increasing boldness of violent Islamic extremists in Pakistan has raised fears that its nuclear weapons are potentially vulnerable to theft or terrorist attack. In its December report, the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, called on the Obama administration to pay special attention to Pakistan's nuclear security.
Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in Britain, says Pakistan has mounted a concerted effort to allay fears about nuclear weapons security as Mr. Obama assumes office. "I think what Kidwai is very keen to do is to reassure the international community that as things sort of get worse and worse in Pakistan in terms of terrorism and Taliban and all the rest of it that the Pakistan military can be trusted to keep these weapons safe and secure," he said.
Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Education Policy Center, says Pakistan is publicly sending a two-pronged message to its closest Western ally and to its chief enemy.
"The first point would be, if you think you can target our weapons, India, they're secure, forget it. If you think you can find out where our weapons are, the United States, they're secure, forget it - and we're not going to give you that kind of access, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars you give us. These are two very important messages that any patriotic Pakistani logically would want to emphasize," he said.
Ken Luongo of the Partnership for Global Security says Pakistan fears not only an attack from India, but also worries that U.S. forces might try to seize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in a crisis. "They're very concerned about the possibility that there will be a commando attack against their infrastructure, if we knew enough, in a crisis, and that at the end of the day they would end up with no [nuclear] weapons. And that's their worst fear."
General Kidwai, who heads the Strategic Plans Division, or S.P.D., gave away no secrets to the New York Times. But he is quoted as labeling Pakistan's nuclear security systems as foolproof.
But some foreign analysts believe the danger of internal penetration by extremists into the nuclear program is greater than a physical terrorist attack.
Brian Cloughley, a former Australian army attache' to Islamabad, believes the likelihood of such an infiltration is remote. "There is nothing against being an Islamist. I mean, after all, Pakistan is an Islamic country. But, of course, the sensors are out, if you like, for those who are ultra-religionist to the point of being extremist. And it's pretty doubtful that anyone could slip through this very fine mesh net of vetting to get a position of any influence or responsibility in the nuclear program," he said.
But other analysts point out there is really no way to know. Luongo says the new openness about nuclear security from General Kidwai and his S.P.D. rings somewhat hollow since Pakistan will not allow any outside verification of nuclear security. "It's all coming out of the S.P.D. officials, and there hasn't been any way to independently verify what exactly it is that they've done, or how they've instituted the [security] improvements, or how they're working. They won't let anybody close enough. This is all being done on kind of an arm's length basis," he said.
General Kidwai told the New York Times' David Sanger that the United States shouldn't lecture Pakistan on nuclear security since the U.S. Air Force lost track of some its nuclear weapons for some 36 hours in 2007. The incident cost the Secretary of the Air Force his job.