The suicide-murder of Benazir Bhutto by her moral and intellectual inferiors seems to have made the world notice - just for a moment - the nuclear warning-light that has been flashing angrily all year.Punctuating 2007 there has been a string of nuclear break-ins, accidents and screw-ups that should have us sweating. How many people know that Congo's main nuclear scientist was arrested in March for flogging off enriched uranium to anyone who wanted it, in a kind of radioactive eBay? Or that this summer six bombs with more explosive power than Hiroshima were accidentally flown across the continental United States, and left unguarded on a landing strip in Louisiana for ten hours before anyone in the Air Force wondered where they'd gone? Or that this November, four unknown men managed to shoot their way into South Africa's main nuclear facility, which has material enough for 25 nuclear bombs - and could rummage through the enriched uranium storage vault for 45 minutes before they escaped?
It has taken the groaning and potential collapse of a nuclear state for us to see, even flickeringly, the risks of having so much nuclear material scattered across the globe. We don't currently know how many nukes Pakistan has: some estimates say 50, others go as high as 120. The Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf assures us they are all securely locked up and locked down. Yet interviewing experts about the programme, and poring through the major academic studies, has led me to conclude this is not the case.
But first, the good news. Some worthwhile safety precautions have been put in place in Pakistan over the past five years. The country's nukes are not kept on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire at any moment. Instead, the warhead cores are kept in different places from the weapon detonation components. To put them together and make a shootable nuke would take around three days - providing a long(ish) fuse in a crisis. Even if jihadis managed to seize one nuclear weapons site, they would still need to seize another one - and secure transportation between the two - to go nuclear.
Nothing else about this picture is reassuring. Professor Shaun Gregory of the Pakistan Security Research Unit has discovered that almost the entire nuclear arsenal is kept in the most fundamentalist part of Pakistan - the west. This is one of the main jihadi gathering-places, where the 7/7 bombers trained and Osama Bin Laden is almost certainly hiding out. They are stored there because it is the furthest possible point from Pakistan's nuclear rival, India, giving the country maximum warning time in a nuclear war or hypothetical invasion.
The big danger is that this part of the Pakistani state shatters into competing fragments, and control of the nukes becomes contested. Already, today, Musharraf finds it impossible to control great swathes of the country's territory. It's not hard to see this loosening yet further. Pakistan is a cobbling together of conflicting linguistic and tribal groups, many of whom want to go it alone. If the military begins to fracture, the experts fear three potential scenarios - none of them probable, but all of them possible.
Nightmare One: a jihadi group manages to seize a nuclear weapon outright, by force, from the vacuum. Osama Bin Laden has, after all, told his fanatical followers it is an "Islamic duty" to acquire a "Muslim bomb" (presumably followed by Islamic radiation sickness and Islamic cancer). This scenario is highly unlikely. If the army breaks up, it will be a major prestige-prize to keep control of the weapons, establishing that you are the Top Dogs. They will not relinquish them without a hard fight, or lots of cash.
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Nightmare Two: One of the broken shards of the Pakistani army that manages to hold onto some of the nukes turns out to be sympathetic to al-Qa'ida. This is more likely, because parts of the Pakistani army have already helped al-Qa'ida, repeatedly and enthusiastically. For example, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was about to be seized in Karachi a year after the attacks - until he was tipped off by friends within the Pakistani military establishment. He was passed from serving military officer to serving military officer, until he was captured in a military safe-house in Rawalpindi. The senior Pakistani nuclear scientist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, estimates today that 10 per cent of his colleagues are Talibanists, noting, "There is potential for dark things to happen."
Nightmare Three: As Pakistan falls apart, the soldiers at the nuclear sites start to sell off the nukes to whoever will pay for them. Again, this is more likely - because it has already happened. A Q Khan, the father of the country's nuclear bomb, effectively opened an international branch of Tesco for nuclear weapons. He merrily sold to North Korea, Libya and others. The former UN weapons inspector David Albright says: "As loyalties break down ... you may not be able to get a whole weapon, but you might get the core."
So while the Bush administration has been chasing two WMD programmes that long-since stopped - Iraq's and Iran's - a real WMD danger has been swelling unnoticed. What can be done now? Figures close to the Bush administration are mooting short-term "solutions" that could actually make the problem even worse. Frederick Kagan - the architect of Bush's surge policy in Iraq - has drawn up hellish plans to surround the Pakistani nuclear bunkers with tens of thousands of high-powered landmines and cluster munitions to prevent anyone getting in or out. Scott Sagan, a US counterproliferation expert, warns: "If Pakistan fears they may be attacked, they have an incentive to take [the weapons] out of the [more secure] bunkers and put them out in the countryside," where they are more vulnerable to being grabbed by fanatics.
Every time the US military has war-gamed, sending in troops to seize the unknown number of weapons, it has ended in a horrific blood-bath - and the weapons still eluding their control. As Professor Gregory puts it: "Condoleezza Rice's remarks about 'contingency plans' to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons were really only a rhetorical exercise aimed at reassuring the American public. If the situation really did disintegrate to the point where Pakistani control of the weapons eroded there would be very little the US, or anyone else, could do."
There is only one long-term solution, long since left for dead by the dedicated followers of political fashion. We need, steadily, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world through determined multilateral negotiations. A fiercely proud Pakistan will not reduce its arsenal alone. But in lockstep with India and the rest of the nuclear powers, there is a chance.
So far, on the international stage, only Barack Obama has mooted this. But the only alternative is to wait, and wait, until somewhere, one of these weapons is seized - and used.
© 2007 The Independent