Wednesday 23 Jun 2021 | 19:02 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Jun 2021 | 19:02 | SYDNEY

Why Pakistan matters


Hugh White

12 November 2007 07:44

The turmoil in Pakistan matters for one reason above all: nuclear weapons.  Pakistan is by far the weakest state ever to acquire nuclear weapons, and political instability raises real questions about who is in charge of them.  This NYT piece  outlines some of the concerns now being raised in Washington.  But the current political crisis in Pakistan raises deeper questions about curious inability of the US policy process to come to grips with the risk that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has posed ever since 9/11.

The Administration has - rightly - made much of the risk that terrorists might get hold of nuclear weapons.  Strangely, it has focused mostly on Iraq, Iran and North Korea.  But ever since 9/11 by far the most credible and proximate risk of nuclear terrorism has lain in Pakistan, with its highly dangerous combination of a relatively large nuclear arsenal and a weak government, elements of which have clear sympathies with al Qaeda and its affiliates, partly based in Pakistan since the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.  There is no evidence that the US has developed a coherent policy to minimise this risk.  Indeed as the Times article suggests, there is little evidence that Washington knows much at all about where Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are kept, who is in charge of them, and how vulnerable they would be to theft.

But it is a reasonable assumption that the shakier President Musharraf becomes, the higher the risk that whatever systems are in place will start to fail.  What then are the chances of one or more nuclear weapons falling into Al Qaeda’s hands?  One way to think about that is to ponder how many ‘degrees of separation’ there might be between those who control Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and Osama bin Laden.  What are the chances that one of bin Laden’s Pakistani allies knows a bloke who knows a bloke who knows the commander of the guard?  Too high for comfort.     

If a Pakistani nuclear weapon delivered in a shipping container kills fifty thousand people in a major Western city, people will ask: how was it that this threat was known, understood and ignored, when so much energy and effort were devoted to so many more remote dangers?  And what could we have done in advance to prevent it?  Of course it would be better to ask this question now.  There are no easy answers – but there is a lot at stake.  By a very long margin this must be the most important issue in the war on terror.