/ 4 May 2009

Pakistan nuclear projects raise US fears

Pakistan is continuing to expand its nuclear bomb-making facilities despite growing international concern that advancing Islamist extremists could overrun one or more of its atomic weapons plants or seize sufficient radioactive material to make a dirty bomb, US nuclear experts and former officials say.

David Albright, previously a senior weapons inspector for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Iraq, said commercial satellite photos showed two new plutonium-producing reactors were nearing completion at Khushab, south-west of the capital Islamabad.

”In the current climate, with Pakistan’s leadership under duress from daily acts of violence by insurgent Taliban forces and organised political opposition, the security of any nuclear material produced in these reactors is in question,” Albright said in a report issued by the independent Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.

Albright warned that the ongoing development of Pakistan’s atomic weapons programme could trigger a renewed nuclear arms race with India. But he suggested a more immediate threat to nuclear security arose from recent territorial advances in north-west Pakistan by indigenous Taliban and foreign jihadi forces opposed to the Pakistani government and its American and British allies.

”Current US policy, focused primarily on shoring up Pakistan’s resources for fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, has had the unfortunate effect of turning the US into more of a concerned bystander of Pakistan’s expansion of its ability to produce nuclear weapons,” Albright said in the report, co-authored with Paul Brannan.

The Khushab reactors are situated on the border of Punjab and North-West Frontier province, the scene of heavy fighting between Taliban and government forces.

Another allegedly vulnerable facility is the Gadwal uranium enrichment plant, located south of Buner district, where some of the fiercest clashes have taken place in recent days.

A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Kamra air weapons complex near Gadwal in December 2007, injuring several people.

Uncertainty has long surrounded Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. The country is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty or the comprehensive test ban treaty. Nor has it submitted its nuclear facilities to international inspection since joining the nuclear club in 1998, when it detonated five nuclear devices.

Pakistan is currently estimated to have about 200 atomic bombs.

Dirty bomb threat
Although Pakistan maintains a special 10 000-strong army force to guard its nuclear warheads and facilities, western officials are also said to be increasingly concerned that military insiders with Islamist sympathies may obtain radioactive material that could be used to make a so-called dirty bomb, for possible use in terrorist attacks on western cities.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, told Congress recently that Pakistan had dispersed its nuclear warheads to different locations across the country in order to improve their security. But John Bolton, a hawkish former senior official in the Bush administration, said this weekend that this move could have the opposite effect to that intended.

”There is a tangible risk that several weapons could slip out of military control. Such weapons could then find their way to al-Qaeda or other terrorists, with obvious global implications,” Bolton said.

Bolton threw doubt on President Barack Obama’s assurance last week that while he was ”gravely concerned” about the stability of Pakistan’s government, he was ”confident that the nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands”. Since there was a real risk of governmental collapse, Bolton said the US must be prepared for direct military intervention inside Pakistan to seize control of its nuclear stockpile and safeguard western interests.

”To prevent catastrophe will require considerable American effort … We must strengthen pro-American elements in Pakistan’s military, roll back Taliban advances and, together with our increased efforts in Afghanistan, decisively defeat the militants on either side of the border,” Bolton wrote in an article published in the Wall Street Journal.

”At the same time, we should contemplate whether and how to extract as many nuclear weapons as possible from Pakistan, thus somewhat mitigating the consequences of regime collapse.”

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, has dismissed such warnings as hyperbolic and accused US officials and analysts of being guilty of a ”panic reaction”.

”The spectre of extremist Taliban taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan is not only a gross exaggeration, it could also lead to misguided policy prescriptions from Pakistan’s allies, including our friends in Washington,” Haqqani said last week.

Senior British officials have also poured cold water on some of the more sensational statements emanating from Washington.

”There is obvious concern but it is not at the same level as the state department. We are not concerned Pakistan is about to collapse. The Taliban are not going to take Islamabad. There is a lot of resilience in the Pakistani state,” one official said.

The warnings about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons come ahead of a summit meeting in Washington this week between Obama, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.

The three leaders are expected to discuss implementation of the US’s new integrated strategy for the Afghan-Pakistan region, which includes a ”surge” of 17 000 US troops plus additional Nato forces in Afghanistan and further non-military development aid and assistance for Pakistan. — Guardian News and Media