Matt Gurney May 2, 2011 – 10:47 AM ET | Last Updated: May 2, 2011 2:45 PM ET
It will be a long time before every detail of the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special forces is known. Indeed, in the short term, much of the information that does come out must be taken with a grain of salt, as both the United States military, government and the Pakistani leadership have reasons to hide or misrepresent the facts of what was obviously a highly sensitive mission. But what we do know doesn’t look good on our so-called Pakistani allies: bin Laden wasn’t hiding in some dank cave, but was in fact living in a newly built mansion in an affluent Pakistani city, apparently within a 10 minute walk — a mere thousand yards — of a Pakistani military academy where the best of Pakistan’s officers are trained. And that’s not even to mention the three whole regiments of army troops that were also based in the city.
No one should doubt that there are honourable elements within the Pakistani government and security forces, who recognize the threat posed by Islamic radicalism and the benefits of aligning their country with the West. But there should be equally little doubt that however large those elements may be, they do not have full control of their country and its military forces. The government of Pakistan is divided up into competing factions, with their own agendas and plots against each other. This breeds instability and the risk of rapid shifts in the balance of power within Pakistan.
The military has typically been considered the most reliable, pro-Western element of the Pakistani power structure, in contrast with the thoroughly Islamist and pro-Taliban intelligence services and the weak civilian government trapped between them. But now we discover that the world’s most wanted man, the leading terrorist of our time, was living practically within shouting distance of a major Pakistani military facility in a heavily garrisoned city. That leaves us with two equally unpalatable possibilities: the military is either not as aligned with the West as we had assumed, or is simply incompetent.
Neither option is good. In recent years, major activity has been observed at many of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities, as the country is believed to be both enlarging and modernizing its stockpile of nuclear warheads. Estimates as to the size of the Pakistani arsenal have now at least doubled to somewhere between one and two hundred bombs, and the bombs themselves are, thanks to modernization, becoming smaller and more powerful at the same time. It is likely that Pakistani nuclear weapons are now capable of achieving yields that would be measured in the hundreds of kilotons — many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, and certainly capable of hollowing out any major city.
Pakistan has repeatedly tried to reassure the world that its arsenal is safe and secure, and a 2008 U.S. Congressional report noted that the weapons are stored in secure underground facilities, unassembled, and separate from their launchers. But while that might sound comforting, the fact remains that the security of these weapons rests in the hands of those who somehow missed bin Laden’s mansion just down the street from their training facility, who receive their information from the same intelligence services that consider the Taliban a strategic asset, not an enemy.
It is obvious why Pakistan feels it needs nuclear weapons — only through their power can they hope to stave off an attack by the much more economically and military powerful Indians. They will never give them up. But the risk posed by leaving the ultimate weapon in such obviously unreliable hands cannot be overstated. For the sake of the world’s safety, we must hope that the United States keeps a close eye on where these weapons are stored, and is prepared to do what’s necessary to prevent them from ever falling into the wrong hands — even if that involves the rapid, surgical use of some of America’s own stockpile of nuclear warheads to destroy the bunkers where Pakistan keeps theirs.
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