Pakistan: Maybe Not the Best Country in Which to Store Nuclear Weapons

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Here's the thing: If you were looking for a safe place to store nuclear weapons, would you choose a country that is the epicenter of global jihadism, and that sees its military bases, and even its military's general headquarters, attacked with some regularity, and some success? If you answered no, you are correct!  Once again this week, we see Pakistani radicals having some measure of success attacking a base at the heart of the country's military-nuclear complex. From The Times:

The attack on the Minhas air force base in Kamra, 25 miles northwest of the capital, Islamabad, was a stark reminder of the militants' determination to attack Pakistan's most sensitive installations despite ongoing military operations in their tribal hide-outs.

The sprawling air base, in the Attock district of Punjab, is believed to be one of the locations where elements of Pakistan's nuclear stockpile, estimated to include at least 100 warheads, is stored. It is also home to a variety of warplanes, including American-built F-16s, and contains a factory that makes JF-17 fighter jets in conjunction with China. 

No nuclear material went missing this time. It is, however, only a matter of time before a more serious breach is made, with enormous consequences. Last year, Marc Ambinder and I wrote about Pakistani nuclear security in our Atlantic cover story "The Ally From Hell," and we provided some detail about previous attacks on Pakistani nuclear sites. We also conveyed Pakistan's assertions that, hey, everything is fine, no worries:

In an interview this summer in Islamabad, a senior official of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), the Pakistani military's spy agency, told The Atlantic that American fears about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons were entirely unfounded. "Of all the things in the world to worry about, the issue you should worry about the least is the safety of our nuclear program," the official said. "It is completely secure." He went on to say, "It is in our interest to keep our bases safe as well. You must trust us that we have maximum and impenetrable security. No one with ill intent can get near our strategic assets."

Like many statements made by Pakistan's current leaders, this one contained large elements of deceit. At least six facilities widely believed to be associated with Pakistan's nuclear program have already been targeted by militants. In November 2007, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying workers to the Sargodha air base, which is believed to house nuclear weapons; the following month, a school bus was attacked outside Kamra air base, which may also serve as a nuclear storage site; in August 2008, Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers attacked what experts believe to be the country's main nuclear-weapons-assembly depot in Wah cantonment. If jihadists are looking to raid a nuclear facility, they have a wide selection of targets: Pakistan is very secretive about the locations of its nuclear facilities, but satellite imagery and other sources suggest that there are at least 15 sites across Pakistan at which jihadists could find warheads or other nuclear materials.


UPDATE: I received this email from one Khawar Ayub in response to this post:

Dear sir,

why you are against pakistan so much.
why dont you write against the biggest terrorist of the world who used nuclear bombs against innocent humans if you have guts write truth.

Regards

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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