Several factors may have contributed to Mullen’s decisive break. The September 13 raid on the American Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul—in which Haqqani insurgents besieged the compound with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, killing at least 16 people—had shocked the Joint Chiefs. Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, “had to spend 18 hours in a bunker to keep himself alive,” this source said. “Imagine what would have happened had he been killed.”
Admiral Mullen had been even more shocked by the murder last May of Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani journalist. Shahzad, who maintained close contact with various jihadist leaders, had angered ISI leaders with his reporting, according to The New Yorker. Not long after the killing, Admiral Mullen took the unprecedented step of stating publicly that Shahzad’s death had been “sanctioned by the government” of Pakistan. “I have not seen anything to disabuse the report that the government knew about this,” he said. In fact, he had seen reliable intelligence proving that the top leaders of the Pakistani army and ISI had ordered the murder. The New Yorker reported that the order to kill Shahzad came from an officer on General Kayani’s staff. Sources we spoke with say the order was passed directly to General Pasha, the head of the ISI. According to one of the sources, an official with knowledge of the intelligence, Pasha was told to “deal with it” and “take care of the problem.” According to this source, Mullen was horrified that his Pakistani interlocutors of many years had been involved in orchestrating the killing of a journalist. “It struck a visceral chord with him,” the source told The Atlantic, recalling that Mullen had slammed his desk and said, “This is old school.”
The ISI has strenuously denied any involvement in the Shahzad murder. “There will be no statements on these unsubstantiated matters,” Commodore Zafar Iqbal, an ISI spokesman, said when asked for comment. Another high-ranking official of the ISI said during an extended conversation in Islamabad: “That is an absolutely false allegation. The government of Pakistan had nothing to do with the unfortunate death.” Talking at length with this senior ISI official provided a reporter with a sense of what life must be like for American officials who work regularly with that organization. When asked about the allegation that Lashkar-e-Taiba operates under the protection of the ISI, he said, “We don’t have anything to do with that, not at all.” What about the Mumbai attacks? “We had nothing to do with that. To say that the ISI was involved in Mumbai is really unfair.” What about the Haqqani network and its attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan? “The Haqqani network is something completely separate from us.” When asked if the country’s various security services were equal to the task of protecting civilians from Pakistan’s large assortment of jihadist groups, he gave an enthusiastic yes.
The conversation took place in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Islamabad. The Serena has become an armed fortress: cars are banned from the hotel entrance; security guards and anti-terror police patrol the perimeter of the hotel, which is surrounded by razor wire; and guests and visitors must pass through three separate security checks before being allowed into the lobby, which is itself watched by plainclothes ISI agents. These various precautions would seem to suggest that Islamabad is itself not entirely secure. It was noted that in neighboring Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan’s so-called garrison cities (Abbottabad is another), the general headquarters of the Pakistani army itself came under sustained attack by the Taliban in 2009. Doesn’t all of this suggest that Pakistan is not a secure country?, the ISI official was asked. “Nonsense,” he replied. “Americans are much too concerned about the stability and safety of Pakistan.”
What really worries American strategic thinkers is less the relative dangerousness of the streets and hotels of Islamabad and Rawalpindi than the long-term stability and coherence of the Pakistani state itself. Stephen P. Cohen, the Brookings Institution scholar, says that if Pakistan were not in possession of nuclear weapons, the problem would not be nearly the same. Pakistan without nuclear weapons, he says, would be the equivalent of “Nigeria without oil”—a much lower foreign-policy priority.
American strategists like Cohen argue that the U.S. must maintain its association with a nuclear Pakistan over the long term for three main reasons. The first is that an unstable and friendless Pakistan would be more apt to take precipitous action against India; the second is that nuclear material, or a warhead, could go missing; the third, longer-term worry is that the Pakistani state itself could implode. “One of the negative changes we’ve seen is that Pakistan is losing its coherence as a state,” Cohen said. “Its economy has failed, its politics have failed, and its army either fails or looks the other way. There are no good options.” Few experts believe that Pakistan is in imminent danger of complete collapse—but the trends, as Cohen notes, are wholly negative. The government is widely considered to be among the world’s most corrupt. (President Asif Ali Zardari is himself informally known as “Mr. 10 Percent.”) Last year, Pakistan’s inflation rate hit a high of 15 percent, and the real unemployment rate was 34 percent. Some 60 percent of Pakistanis survive on less than $2 a day. Nearly a quarter of the government budget goes to the military.
In a country that has achieved only modestly in the realms of innovation, science, and education (especially in comparison with its rival, India), the Pakistani nuclear program has played an outsized role in the building of national self-esteem. And so criticism of the program is deeply wounding, and produces feelings of paranoia.
In 2000, one of the authors of this article met A. Q. Khan, the nuclear scientist known as the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear-bomb program, at a ceremony in Islamabad meant to mark the second anniversary of the detonation of the country’s first atomic bomb. (Khan was also the principal exporter of Pakistani nuclear technology to such countries as Iran, North Korea, and Libya.) The celebration—complete with a vanilla sheet cake on which the words Youm-e-Takbeer, or “Day of God’s Greatness,” were written in lemon frosting—was held in the presence of many of the country’s leading nuclear scientists, and of General Musharraf, who had recently come to power in a coup. After the ceremony, Khan told a small circle of admiring nuclear scientists, as well as the visiting American reporter, that the U.S. and the rest of the West resented Pakistan’s admission into the nuclear club. “The West has been leading a crusade against the Muslims for a thousand years,” he said. He went on to assert that the U.S. would do anything in its power to neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear assets. One of the scientists in the circle agreed, and said, “Why do the Americans want to destroy Islam?”
This sort of paranoia has spread through the Pakistani security elite—and it went viral after the Abbottabad raid. Fear of pernicious American designs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has combined with people’s anger over their military’s apparent impotence, creating a feeling of almost toxic insecurity across the country. The raid shook the confidence of the army, and its admirers, like no other event since Pakistan’s most recent defeat by the Indian army, in 1999. (There have been multiple wars between India and Pakistan, all of them won by India.) When U.S. Navy SEALs penetrated Pakistani air defenses, landed in helicopters streets away from a prestigious military academy, killed the most-wanted fugitive in modern history, and then departed, the Pakistani military was oblivious for the duration. Pervasive derision followed. A popular text message in the days after the raid read, “If you honk your horn, do so lightly, because the Pakistani army is asleep.”
A retired Pakistani general, who expressed disgust at the military’s performance (“There should have been a try to shoot down the American helicopters”), says that the raid intensified traditional Pakistani insecurities. “You can think of this in terms of drones. The Americans are in the skies, where they are invisible, and yet they can kill anyone they want. America is a superpower of technology. It would be easy to make a quick snatch of Pakistani strategic assets.”
Pakistanis tend to believe that America seeks to seize their country’s nuclear weapons preemptively, simply because the U.S. doesn’t like their country, or because of a preexisting ideological commitment to keep Muslim countries nuclear-free. This paranoia is not completely irrational, of course; it’s wise for the U.S. to try to design a plan for seizing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in a low-risk manner. “The U.S. tried to prevent Pakistan from becoming a nuclear-weapons state,” said Graham Allison of Harvard’s Belfer Center. “It is not delusional for Pakistan to fear that America is interested in de-nuking them. It is prudent paranoia.”
Supporters of an Islamic separatist group march a mock nuclear missile through the streets of Karachi, February 2011. (Reuters)
Though the U.S. has punished Pakistan in the past for its nuclear program (with sanctions that not only failed to stop the program, but helped to aggravate anti-American feeling among Pakistanis), there is no evidence to suggest that any official of the Obama administration is actively considering “de-nuking” Pakistan in its current state. Officials at the White House and elsewhere argue that the Pakistani military and the SPD are the best tools available to keep Pakistan’s weapons secure. In the recent past, the U.S. has spent as much as $100 million to help the SPD build better facilities and safety-and-security systems. (However, according to David Sanger in his book, The Inheritance, Pakistan has not allowed the U.S. to conduct an audit to see how the $100 million was spent.) One area where Admiral Mullen felt his relationship with General Kayani had borne fruit was over nuclear weapons. “When he would bring up a concern about nuclear weapons in a meeting, the Pakistanis would usually deal with it,” an associate of Mullen’s told us.
But Pakistanis are correct to believe that the U.S. government—because it does not trust Pakistan, because it knows that the civilian leadership is weak, and because it does not have a complete intelligence picture—is worried that the SPD could fail in its mission, and that fissile material or a nuclear weapon could go missing. Pakistanis are also correct to believe that the Pentagon—concerned that Pakistan, beset by ethnic division, corruption, and dire levels of terrorism, could one day come apart completely—has developed a set of highly detailed plans to grapple with nuclear insecurity in Pakistan. “It’s safe to assume that planning for the worst-case scenario regarding Pakistan nukes has already taken place inside the U.S. government,” Roger Cressey, a former deputy director of counterterrorism under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told NBC News in August. “This issue remains one of the highest priorities of the U.S. intelligence community … and the White House.” From time to time, American officials have hinted publicly that there are concrete plans in place in the event of a Pakistani nuclear emergency. For instance, during Senate hearings for her confirmation as secretary of state in 2005, Condoleezza Rice, who was then President Bush’s national-security adviser, was asked by Senator John Kerry what would happen to Pakistan’s nukes in the event of an Islamic coup in Islamabad. “We have noted this problem, and we are prepared to try to deal with it,” Rice said.
Those preparations have been extensive. According to military and intelligence sources, any response to a Pakistani nuclear crisis would involve something along the following lines: If a single weapon or a small amount of nuclear material were to go missing, the response would be small and contained—Abbottabad redux, although with a higher potential for U.S. casualties. The United States Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) maintains rotating deployments of specially trained units in the region, most of them Navy SEALs and Army explosive-ordnance-disposal specialists, who are trained to deal with nuclear weapons that have fallen into the wrong hands. Their area of operation includes the former Soviet states, where there is a large amount of loose fissile material, and, of course, Pakistan. JSOC “has units and aircraft and parachutes on alert in the region for nuclear issues, and regularly inserts units and equipment for prep,” says a military official who was involved in supporting these technicians. Seizing or remotely disabling a weapon of mass destruction is what’s known in military jargon as a “render-safe mission”—and render-safe missions have evidently been successfully pulled off by JSOC in the past. In his memoir, Hugh Shelton, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001, recalls an incident from the 1990s in which the CIA told the Special Operations Command that a ship had left North Korea with what Shelton describes as “an illegal weapon” on board. Where it was headed, the U.S. didn’t know. He wrote:
It was a very time-sensitive mission in which a specific SEAL Team Six component was called into action. While I cannot get into the tactical elements or operational details of this mission, what I can say is that our guys were able to “immobilize” the weapon system in a special way without leaving any trace.
Much more challenging than capturing and disabling a loose nuke or two, however, would be seizing control of—or at least disabling—the entire Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the event of a jihadist coup, civil war, or other catastrophic event. This “disablement campaign,” as one former senior Special Operations planner calls it, would be the most taxing, most dangerous of any special mission that JSOC could find itself tasked with—orders of magnitude more difficult and expansive than Abbottabad. The scale of such an operation would be too large for U.S. Special Operations components alone, so an across-the-board disablement campaign would be led by U.S. Central Command—the area command that is responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia, and runs operations in Afghanistan and Iraq—and U.S. Pacific Command.
JSOC would take the lead, however, accompanied by civilian experts, and has been training for such an operation for years. JSOC forces are trained to breach the inner perimeters of nuclear installations, and then to find, secure, evacuate—or, if that’s not possible, to “render safe”—any live weapons. At the Nevada National Security Site, northwest of Las Vegas, Delta Force and SEAL Team Six squadrons practice “Deep Underground Shelter” penetrations, using extremely sensitive radiological detection devices that can pick up trace amounts of nuclear material and help Special Operations locate the precise spot where the fissile material is stored. JSOC has also built mock Pashtun villages, complete with hidden mock nuclear-storage depots, at a training facility on the East Coast, so SEALs and Delta Force operatives can practice there.
At the same time American military and intelligence forces have been training in the U.S for such a disablement campaign, they have also been quietly pre-positioning the necessary equipment in the region. In the event of a coup, U.S. forces would rush into the country, crossing borders, rappelling down from helicopters, and parachuting out of airplanes, so they could begin securing known or suspected nuclear-storage sites. According to the former senior Special Operations planner, JSOC units’ first tasks might be to disable tactical nuclear weapons—because those are more easily mated, and easier to move around, than long-range missiles.
In a larger disablement campaign, the U.S. would likely mobilize the Army’s 20th Support Command, whose Nuclear Disablement Teams would accompany Special Operations detachments or Marine companies into the country. These teams are trained to engage in what the military delicately calls “sensitive site exploitation operations on nuclear sites”—meaning that they can destroy a nuclear weapon without setting it off. Generally, a mated nuclear warhead can be deactivated when its trigger mechanism is disabled—and so both the Army teams and JSOC units train extensively on the types of trigger mechanisms that Pakistani weapons are thought to use. According to some scenarios developed by American war planners, after as many weapons as possible were disabled and as much fissile material as possible was secured, U.S. troops would evacuate quickly—because the final stage of the plan involves precision missile strikes on nuclear bunkers, using special “hard and deeply buried target” munitions.
But nuclear experts issue a cautionary note: it is not clear that American intelligence can identify the locations of all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, particularly after the Abbottabad raid. “Anyone who tells you that they know where all of Pakistan’s nukes are is lying to you,” General James Jones, President Obama’s first national-security adviser, has said, according to a source who heard him say it. (When asked by the authors of this article about his statement, General Jones issued a “no comment.”) Another American former official with nuclear expertise says, “We don’t even know, on any given day, exactly how many weapons they have. We can get within plus or minus 10, but that’s about it.”
Pakistan’s military chiefs are aware that America’s military has developed plans for an emergency nuclear-disablement operation in their country, and they have periodically threatened to ally themselves with China, as a way to undercut U.S. power in South Asia. In a recent statement quite obviously meant for American ears, Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, described the Pakistani-Chinese relationship as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.” But China, too, is worried about Pakistan’s stability, and has recently alleged that Pakistan has harbored Uighur separatists operating in western China. According to American sources, China has, in secret talks with the U.S., reached an understanding that, should America decide to send forces into Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons, China would raise no objections. (An Obama-administration spokesperson had no comment.)
The U.S. takes great pains to stress to the Pakistanis that any disablement or render-safe plans would be put into effect only in the event that everything else fails—and furthermore, that these plans have the primary goal of helping to maintain Pakistan’s secure possession of the weapons over the long term. (In fact, some Pakistani officials accept these American plans—they welcome American technical and military assistance in keeping nuclear material out of the wrong hands.) Still, the subject comes up at almost every high-level meeting between U.S. and Pakistani officials.