WASHINGTON: It’s a subject Americans can’t stop discussing and one Pakistan hates talking about. The Mehran attack has once again focused world attention on the security of the country’s fast-growing nuclear arsenal.
The Obama administration on Monday did not publicly go beyond “strongly” condemning the attack and appreciating the “service and sacrifices of their brave armed forces,” but the incident has reignited the simmering debate about vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. US analysts noted that Mehran is only 15 miles away from the Masroor air base, where Pakistan is believed to have a large depot of nuclear weapons that can be delivered from the air.
While Pakistan insists that its “crown jewels” are under foolproof security, but at the heart of the debate is a worry that they are vulnerable to internal attack by a “jihadized” military, judging by multiple attacks on military facilities by terrorists who seemingly have the inside track on security , including in the Mehran strike. Add to this, a recent WikiLeaks cable citing Pakistani military officials admitting sabotage of F-16 s by “Islamists amongst the enlisted ranks” has added to the concern.
Pakistani militant attacks over the last five years include strikes against three nuclear facilities, in Wah, Sargodha, and Kamra, according to Prof Shaun Gregory, a security specialist at Bradford University. But each time, the Pakistan military establishment, which has itself suffered attacks at its General Headquarters and training and recruitment centers , insists that there was no danger to its nuclear assets.
But Gregory says the attacks illustrate “a clear set of weaknesses and vulnerabilities” in Pakistan’s nuclear security regime, a danger brought home by the ease with which militants are now penetrating military installations. Concern is growing in the west about the internal dynamics in a military that was once thought to be “westernized and professional” .
The US has forked out over $100 million to improve Pakistan’s nuclear security but Washington now admits it has no idea how the money was spent. There is consternation in Washington about the speed with which Pakistan is ramping up its nuclear arsenal with some analysts predicting that it could soon have the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, behind US, Russia, and China, and ahead of France and UK.
Washington is thick with speculation about US contingency plans in the event of a nuclear heist in Pakistan, notwithstanding assurances that US has no designs on Pakistani nukes. But every US statement is dissected in Pakistan for hidden meanings amid fears that Washington is planning to neutralize its nuclear arsenal.