By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007
A small group of U.S. military experts and intelligence officials convened in Washington for a classified war game last year, exploring strategies for securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal if the country's political institutions and military safeguards began to fall apart.
The secret exercise -- conducted without official sponsorship from any government agency, apparently due to the sensitivity of its subject -- was one of several such games the U.S. government has conducted in recent years examining various options and scenarios for Pakistan's nuclear weapons: How many troops might be required for a military intervention in Pakistan? Could Pakistani nuclear bunkers be isolated by saturating the surrounding areas with tens of thousands of high-powered mines, dropped from the air and packed with anti-tank and anti-personnel munitions? Or might such a move only worsen the security of Pakistan's arsenal?
For several years the U.S. government has sought to help Pakistan improve its weapons safeguards, spending tens of millions of dollars since 2001 to boost the security of the country's nuclear bunkers. However, the issue has gained greater urgency in recent weeks as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's move to declare a state of emergency and suspend the constitution plunged the country into street clashes and political turmoil. Although U.S. officials express confidence in the current security measures, the more they examine the risks, the more they realize that there are no good answers, said Robert B. Oakley, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. "Everybody's scrambling on this," Oakley said.
The conclusion of last year's game, said one participant, was that there are no palatable ways to forcibly ensure the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons -- and that even studying scenarios for intervention could worsen the risks by undermining U.S.-Pakistani cooperation. "It's an unbelievably daunting problem," said this participant, a former Pentagon official who asked not to be identified because of the game's secrecy. The contingency plans that do exist, he added, are at the headquarters of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, and are in "very close hold." Even so, he said, planners really haven't developed answers for how to deal with nuclear weapons stashed in Pakistan's big cities and high mountain ranges.
"The bottom line is, it's the nightmare scenario," said retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, who participated in an earlier exercise that simulated a breakup of Pakistan. "It has loose nukes, hard to find, potentially in the hands of Islamic extremists, and there aren't a lot of good military options."
Analysts caution that Musharraf's recent moves -- including stepping down as army chief and setting a timeline for restoring constitutional rule -- haven't ended the risks of further instability. "These are very half-hearted gestures," said Anita Weiss, author of "Power and Civil Society in Pakistan" and a professor at the University of Oregon. "Pakistan is not yet where we can say things have been resolved."
An expert on Pakistani terrorism who did not attend last year's war game but learned about some of its conclusions said that senior U.S. officials "weren't pleased with what the game told them; they were quite shocked." He spoke on the condition of anonymity because, he said, the U.S. efforts related to securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal involve "really, really black SAPs" -- that is, among the most highly guarded "special access programs."
Even some steps that might appear to offer a short-term solution could backfire in the long run, warned Milton Bearden, a former CIA station chief in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad who now does some work for the Pakistani government on trade issues. "When you talk about U.S. troops going in and taking out Pakistani nukes," he said, "that means we've just invaded another country."
Others maintain that simply holding the games may worsen the situation by antagonizing Pakistanis and by encouraging the Pakistani government to take countermeasures. Retired Pakistani Brigadier Feroz Khan, who until 2001 was the second-ranking officer in the Pakistani army's strategic plans division, which oversees the control of nuclear weapons, said in an interview that he has heard of the studies and war games carried out "in various U.S. government agencies," and thinks they are "very dangerous."
"You might just want to remember Desert One," he added, referring to the botched U.S. mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980.
As a result of U.S. government studies of the nuclear issue, Pakistani officials have come to believe a U.S. intervention "is a real threat now," Khan said. The Pakistani military almost certainly has taken steps to forestall such a raid, he said, such as creating phony bunkers that contain dummy nuclear warheads. He estimated that Pakistan's current arsenal now contains about 80 to 120 genuine warheads, roughly double the figure usually cited by outside experts.
"It may actually make things worse, to attempt that sort of thing," agreed Zia Mian, a Princeton University physicist and expert on nuclear proliferation in South Asia. Among other negative repercussions, he predicted, any U.S. effort to secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal "would really increase anti-Americanism."
A concern of some proliferation experts is that in an internal breakup, a contending faction might seek to grab some of the nuclear warheads, not necessarily to use them but to wield them as a symbol of authority. "I think there is a lot of concern about this, and the less stable the government and the society become, the greater the concern," said a senior U.S. intelligence officer whose agency wouldn't permit him to speak for attribution. That said, he added in an interview, the sense inside the intelligence community currently is that the threat isn't dire. Also, he said, "The good news is that Pakistan . . . takes this very, very seriously."
But what if the government of Pakistan can't ensure the security of the nukes? "Then I would agree there are no good answers," he said. So far, Pakistan's internal crisis hasn't become widely violent, he noted. "I think if things get violent, if the government loses control, then one considers the risks in a more active way."
The war games conducted by the U.S. government and by other experts offer a recurring conclusion: Retaining the cooperation of the Pakistani government, especially its military, is crucial. "Our best bet to secure Pakistan's nuclear forces would be in a cooperative mode with the Pakistani military, not an adversarial one," said Scott Sagan, a Stanford University expert in counterproliferation.
Sagan argued that mere contemplation of a U.S. intervention might actually increase the chances of terrorists acquiring a nuclear warhead. He said that in a crisis, the Pakistani government might begin to move its nuclear weapons from secure but known sites to more secret but less-secure locations. "If Pakistan fears they may be attacked," he said, then the Pakistani military has an incentive "to take them out of the bunkers and put them out in the countryside."
In such locations, Sagan concluded, the weapons would be more vulnerable to capture by bad actors. "It ironically increases the likelihood of terrorist seizure," said Sagan, who in the past has advised the Pentagon on nuclear strategy. He noted that Pakistan moved some of its arsenal in September 2001, when it feared it might be attacked.
But Khan, the retired Pakistani brigadier, said that Sagan's fears are misplaced. The weapons "are in secure bunkers, with multiple levels of security, and active and passive measures" to mask their presence, he said. And while he conceded that the Pakistani government moved some nuclear weapons in 2001, he said the shifts made the arsenal more secure, not less.
The senior U.S. intelligence officer also disagreed with Sagan's view that Pakistani moves might make its arsenal more vulnerable. "I think that implies they haven't thought thoroughly about this," he said. "They've looked at it from all sorts of angles. . . . They think they're doing everything they can."
The bottom line, said Oakley, the veteran diplomat, is that "the only way you can safeguard them is to work very, very closely with the Pakistani army." To attack that army, he said, would erode the one institution that is keeping the weapons under control. "If you want nukes to get loose," he said, "that's the way to do it."