ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan has grown accustomed to foreign news articles and U.S. officials accusing it of collusion with Islamist militants. Government officials typically respond with icy silence. But few subjects get Pakistan’s back up like the integrity of its cherished nuclear arsenal, and that defensiveness was on full display last weekend.
The catalyst was a story in this week’s Atlantic magazine, which cast strong doubt on the security of those weapons. According to the article, Pakistan moves its nukes in unmarked trucks on public roads – the same used by militant groups that have attacked military bases – while a worried United States hones plans to secure them in the event of a terrorist takeover.
In a statement on Sunday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry slammed the article, dismissing it “pure fiction, baseless” and “part of a deliberate propaganda campaign meant to mislead opinion”
The same day, the Pakistani military released what appeared to be its own, more oblique response, saying that 700 new graduates had joined a special nuclear security force that has been augmented in recent years by 8,000 additional “handpicked officers and men, who are physically robust, mentally sharp and equipped with modern weapons and equipment.”
Pakistan is a U.S. ally, but is is a commonly held view here that the true American mission is to seize the country’s nuclear weapons. U.S. officials reject that, though they do not deny that the spectre of nuclear warheads falling into the hands of Islamist insurgents, of which there are plenty in Pakistan, is frightening.
Still, in a nation where the animosity toward the United States is fierce, American diplomats were stirred to do their own damage control. In a statement on Monday, the U.S. Embassy expressed “confidence that the government of Pakistan is well aware of the range of potential threats to its nuclear arsenal and has accordingly given very high priority to securing its nuclear weapons and materials effectively.”
Below, watch a video in which Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic explains what makes Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal so dangerous: