Key Obama administration officials, including the national-security adviser, General James Jones, have expressed concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons in light of the seemingly inexorable advance of the Taliban toward the nation's capital. The public airing of such misgivings, at one level, is certainly understandable. No responsible policymaker would want to consider the possibility of even a small part of Pakistan's nuclear assets falling into the hands of one of the most vicious, anti-American, Islamist groups.
Yet such alarm may be premature. Despite the Taliban's recent advances and the shakiness of President Asif Ali Zardari's government, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secure and will remain so. How can I make such a bold assertion? The answer is complex and has much to do with the role of nuclear weapons in Pakistan's overall security strategy. Unless the Pakistani Army, the overseer of the nuclear-weapons program, starts to fragment, the fears of nuclear weapons ending up with the Taliban are greatly exaggerated. Today the military regards nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against its perceived archenemy, India. Consequently, it will not allow this vital weapons capability to slip into the hands of unpredictable, if occasional, allies, such as the Taliban.
Despite the civilian origins of the program in the early 1970s, since the latter part of that decade, the Pakistani Army has managed to maintain an ironclad grip on the program. They presided over its development and created a virtually impregnable stronghold on the country's nuclear-weapons infrastructure. In a state characterized by bureaucratic failure and instability, the nuclear-weapons program is an oasis of efficiency, competence and success. It's easy to understand why. From the perspective of the Pakistani military establishment, the command and control of its nuclear-weapons infrastructure is the final guarantee against a perceived existential threat from India. It's hard to imagine the military voluntarily relinquishing control of its nuclear force to an Islamist government, should it come to that.
There are three possible scenarios in which the Taliban could come into possession of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. One scenario involves a Taliban defeat of the Pakistani Army. Despite the success of the Taliban in the Swat Valley, this is highly unlikely. The many flaws of the Pakistani military notwithstanding, it still remains a formidable and mostly professional military force. In 1972, in the aftermath of the breakup of Pakistan, it brutally suppressed an ethnic insurgency in Baluchistan. If it perceives a genuine and immediate threat to the safety and security of its nuclear arsenal, it will move with similar alacrity and harshness against the Taliban, and indeed it has already stepped up its fighting in the Swat Valley. Consequently, the likelihood of the Taliban seizing Pakistan's nuclear weapons capabilities in a fight with the Pakistani Army borders on the chimerical.
The second scenario is slightly more plausible: key Taliban sympathizers within the Pakistani military, acting in concert with the Pakistani Taliban, manage to seize components of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons complex. Some experts have expressed concern about such a possibility, but though theoretically possible it is extremely unlikely. The present chief of staff of the Pakistan Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was previously the head of Pakistan's overweening and powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. With that background and connections in the intelligence service, there is little reason to believe that he does not exercise rigorous oversight of the Army from his present position. Indeed it strains the imagination to believe that the ISI-D—the very organization that spawned the original Taliban—would not be aware of lurking Taliban sympathizers in its midst.
The third scenario—the Taliban seizes a nuclear weapon while in transit along one of Pakistan's troubled roads—is also not likely to happen. The Pakistani Air Force has transport aircraft that can easily fly components of nuclear weapons to their relevant destinations for final assembly. Otherwise, the missiles are kept in highly secure military bases.
There is much reason to be concerned about Pakistan's political stability given the growing power and reach of the Taliban and other Islamist groups within the country. However, until the Pakistani military starts showing signs of disintegration, policymakers in Washington and elsewhere need not lose much sleep about the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear deterrent. The Taliban will not be allowed to come close to seizing these vital strategic assets.