Pakistan Expands Nuclear Arsenal

Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed Congress that Pakistan is expanding its nuclear arsenal.  The nuclear buildup is occuring at a time when the Pakistani government is battling Taliban insurgents with ties to Al Qaeda, and it further increases concerns that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists if the weak civilian government in Islamabad collapses.

Why Pakistan is building more nuclear weapons is unclear.  A Pakistani official speaking on condition of anonymity said that his country was “maintaining the minimum, credible deterrence capability,” but Pakistan already had between 80 and 100 nuclear bombs before the buildup began, which is a sufficient deterrent against rival countries such as India.

Pakistan also appears to be enhancing its ability to build Bombs at a faster rate by increasing the size of its centrifuge facilities, which are used to enrich uranium to bomb-grade levels, and building plutonium reactors.  The new reactors are located less than 100 miles from Taliban-controlled areas, which heightens fears that critical nuclear materials could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists which could then be used to construct actual weapons.

It is believed that the US has military forces on standby ready to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in the event that the country descends into chaos or it appears that insurgents might come into possession of any part of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.  The Pakistani government and military have pubicly declared that they will not disclose the location of its nuclear weapons to the US or other foreign powers, so it is unclear if the American military knows where all of Pakistan’s weapons can be found or if it would be able to secure them in an emergency.

In an effort to stabilize the nuclear state and thwart the Taliban, the US is planning to provide Pakistan with $3 billion in military assistance over the next five years to help the Pakistani army improve its counterinsurgency capabilities.  But some in Congress are now worried that American aid will be diverted to Pakistan’s nuclear program, and there is a possibility that lawmakers will not provide it.

The US is therefore in a difficult position.  If it provides the military assistance it could inadvertenly help Pakistan increase the size of its nuclear arsenal at a time when the Obama administration is trying to promote nuclear disarmament and prevent atomic weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists.  If the US does not supply the funds it could hinder Pakistan’s efforts to combat the Taliban and prevent the insurgents from further destabilizing the country.  There is a significant possibility that the Pakistanis will continue to build Bombs regardless of what Congress does, so giving them the money might be a lesser risk.

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