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The Bomb Within Range of the Taliban

One thing is certain: while the army is engaged in the difficult battle in the Swat Valley, the Islamabad government continues to develop its military nuclear program. Satellite images have just shown that at the Khushab site, two new reactors, designed to produce plutonium, are about to be completed. That radioactive element will allow Pakistan to manufacture bombs that are smaller and lighter than those based on the uranium 235 that Pakistan has used up until now.

David Albright, a former inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency and a specialist in the Pakistani program, is very worried to see that country developing an arsenal that has already doubled in ten years: "On a site as vast as Khushab, which employs over a hundred people, there can be sabotage, infiltrations, and thefts. The Pakistani government assures us that the nuclear weapons are well-guarded. But only a few months ago, it also asserted that the Taliban represented no threat to the state ..."

Those worries exasperate the guardian of Pakistan's nuclear program, 58-year-old Gen. Khaled Ahmed Kidwai. Located in the heart of Chaklala, a residential neighborhood of Islamabad reserved for the army, his office of the division of strategic planning brings together generals and politicians. That's where he organizes protection of the bomb against the Taliban, al-Qaeda's scientists, Indian intelligence services, and also American curiosity. During his frequent trips to the United States, he tries to make people forget the biggest nuclear arms trafficking in history - to North Korea, Libya and Iran during the 1990s - organized by the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Such a leak, Khaled Ahmed Kidwai repeats to experts, could not recur today. According to Kidwai, the security system he has created is "infallible": hadn't General Musharraf - who feared that the Americans would attempt to confiscate the bombs - asked him to develop the ultra-secret subterranean caches from the time of the very first nuclear tests? Kidwai asserts that surveillance of the 70,000 people who work in the Pakistani nuclear sector, starting with its 8,000 researchers, is tight. But his Western interlocutors also remember that it was Kidwai precisely who was supposed to manage the "Sultan Mahmood affair." That scientist, who designed the Khushab reactor intended to manufacture Pakistan's first plutonium bomb, was fascinated by the connections between science and the Koran. He had stated to his friends that the Pakistani bomb was the property of the umma, the global community of Muslims. In August 2001, while al-Qaeda cells were putting the final touches on their attacks of the twin towers, Mahmood met with Osama bin Laden ...

Three Threats

After September 11, the news of that interview sowed panic in Washington. A CIA nuclear expert, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, was entrusted with the difficult task of assuring that al-Qaeda did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Today, the former CIA agent, who took a position at Harvard five months ago, keeps in his office as a trophy one of the centrifuges Libyan President Kadafi bought from Abdul Qadeer Khan. "The key to the security of the Pakistani nuclear program is ... secrecy," he explains. "So no one knows exactly where the Pakistani bombs hidden in subterranean bunkers are."

Pakistan is signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not authorized any international inspection since it joined the club of nuclear countries in 1998. Larssen says, "It would be very naive to believe that the Pakistani Army would reveal all its nuclear secrets to us in exchange for our assistance. They have no reason to do so!" Moreover, while the Americans have granted secret aid of $100 million to Pakistan over the last six years to secure its nuclear arms, in the end, they gave up the idea of handing over their Permissive Action Links, the electronic access codes that defuse the weapons when bad numbers are entered. The United States shared its codes with France and even with Russia, but they ultimately refused to reveal their security system to the Pakistanis. Result: the Pakistanis protect their arsenal by keeping the detonators and the missiles in different locations.

According to experts, three threats hover over the Pakistani arsenal: the first and least likely is the overthrow of the government by the Taliban. The second is a general breakdown in the communication system. The third, the most likely to happen, simply because it already has, is a theft of nuclear material by those scientists associated with hub of Pakistan's nuclear system. The New York Times was able to obtain an intelligence services report citing the case of fundamentalist Pakistani students educated abroad who wanted to be recruited as researchers by the Pakistani military nuclear program. Another subject that concerns American intelligence services are those Pakistani laboratories still bearing the name of A.Q. Khan. It is impossible, in fact, to precisely quantify the amount of fissile material produced there or to prevent researchers from selling their nuclear savoir-faire to other countries or organizations ...

According to Larssen, Pakistan represents a more serious nuclear danger than Iran or even North Korea. "If Pakistan loses track of a single one of its weapons, we have a serious problem," he says. The former CIA expert is not very optimistic: "We have to apply ourselves to avoiding a nuclear catastrophe in the twenty-first century. That will be a difficult task: from now on, the threats won't be coming from the superpowers, but from terrorist organizations, small groups and small countries." Like Pakistan.

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Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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