Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pakistan is dire. The country is one of the worst affected by the global economic crisis - it has the lowest credit rating in the world. It's also struggling against a cancerous Taliban insurgency that has inched within 60 miles of the capital.

Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation, but it seems nobody in the West knows the number or location of those nukes.

LOS ANGELES: CIA Director Leon Panetta said on Monday that the US does not know the location of all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons but is confident Islamabad has a “pretty secure approach to try to protect these weapons”. “But it is something that we continue to watch,” he said, repeating concerns of possible Taliban access to the weapons.

Is Panetta telling us everything the CIA knows? Of course not. But it would be foolhardy to assume that the CIA has an all-seeing eye - especially after the intelligence failure in Iraq. By extension, it's blithe to bank on a swift, special forces takeover of Pakistan's nuclear sites in the event of a government collapse or a Taliban coup. The nukes are unaccounted for and they could easily slip out of Pakistan, with the consent of a corrupt scientist or a drunken general. They could also be launched by missile at Israel, India and parts of Europe.

Pakistan's nuclear apparatus isn't known for its airtight security. Nuclear secrets have leaked out as if through a sieve: the former head of the nuclear program, AQ Khan, sold technology and blueprints to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

Another major Pakistani nuclear scientist was forced into early retirement in 1998 when he began fantasizing to colleagues about bringing on the end of days and paving the way for an Islamic caliphate.

On the bright side, numerous reports in Pakistani newspapers corroborate that local people are hostile to the Taliban, vociferously so. No wonder; Taliban have beheaded innocents on the streets, kidnapped townspeople's daughters to take them as wives, and poisoned and bombed girls' schools. The Taliban are barbarians and they rule through terror, not through any popular will.

Nevertheless, with well over a million people displaced in the past week by Pakistan's civil war, there is the potential for a massive humanitarian disaster and anarchy - phenomena you never want to see in a nuclear-armed nation, let alone in a nuclear-armed nation where the keys to the bombs are within arm's reach of millenarian, nihilistic Islamists.

We shall see what happens. At the very least, Pakistan is not short on excitement.