Taliban Raid Raises Concern in Pakistan Over Nuclear Weapons

A Taliban raid on a Pakistani airbase that destroyed some of the country’s newest surveillance planes has heightened concern that the military is unable to guard its own assets, including nuclear weapons.

The attack May 23 on the navy base in Karachi, the country’s biggest city, marked the deepest strike into an armed forces facility since militants stormed a building in the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009. The military, which oversees security for the nation’s estimated 70 to 120 nuclear warheads, has since 2008 sought to counter International Atomic Energy Agency fears about the safety of the stockpile.

“People will continue to suspect that we can’t protect our nuclear assets,” Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, said by phone. The militant “organizations have ideological support within the security establishment from lower- to mid-level officers because we trained them and fought with them before 9/11.”

The attack also underscores the drawbacks of a military posture geared toward a conflict with Pakistan’s nuclear-armed neighbor India, rather than the domestic threats that have exposed the army’s vulnerability in recent years. Economic growth, sapped by terrorism, is forecast to slow to 2.5 percent from a targeted 4.5 percent this financial year, a fraction of what’s needed to lift Pakistani living standards.

Nuclear Arsenal

Pakistan army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas declined in a phone call yesterday to answer questions about whether the 16-hour siege in Karachi by six guerrillas armed with rocket launchers and grenades brings into question the army’s ability to protect the country’s military facilities.

Pakistan’s military manages its nuclear arms through its Strategic Plans Division, a unit of about 10,000 members that is kept largely independent of the rest of the army, according to its director, retired Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, who gave a rare briefing to journalists in 2008 after the IAEA expressed fears over Pakistan’s control of its nuclear assets.

Pakistan is able to increase its nuclear arsenal by seven to 14 warheads per year, according to a May 16 assessment by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based research center. Pakistan’s addition of three plutonium reactors at its army-controlled Khushab nuclear complex will in coming years allow it to double its annual production of warheads, the institute said.

Pakistan refuses to give details on the size of its nuclear arsenal or where it is deployed.

Army Failure

“What’s so surprising for me is that how skillfully and tactically these attacks are carried out and there seems nothing out of their reach,” said Rashid Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Sargodha in central Pakistan. “I don’t think they can take control of our nuclear arsenals, but they can certainly try to stage a similar attack on such installations that we have seen yesterday.”

A car bomb exploded in the northwestern provincial capital, Peshawar, this morning, demolishing part of a police headquarters and killing at least three people, according to the Edhi rescue service. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call, Agence France-Presse reported.

The Pakistan military’s failure on May 2 to detect the entry of U.S. helicopter-borne commandos as they flew 150 kilometers (90 miles) into the country to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad, 50 kilometers north of Islamabad, drew criticism from opposition leaders. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani made only the second appearance by a Pakistani army chief before a civilian government’s Parliament to explain the military’s inability to expose bin Laden’s hideout or track the American force that killed him in a town close to the capital.

U.S. Planes

The Karachi attackers damaged or destroyed two U.S.-made P-3C Orion surveillance planes in a strike that shows “Pakistani forces are not trained to tackle internal security threats,” Waseem said. “Their operational readiness is to counter external threats,” notably from India, he said. “Now what we have is a threat coming from Taliban and al-Qaeda.”

After troops regained control of the airbase, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that four militants had been killed and two had possibly escaped. The attackers “were 20 to 22 years of age and wore Western clothes with suicide jackets beneath them,” he said.

The Taliban said it sent 15 guerrillas to attack the base to avenge the killing of bin Laden and protest the Pakistani government’s relations with the U.S.

The PNS Mehran Base is 10 kilometers from Karachi’s Quaid-e-Azam International Airport. It provides all the logistic and administrative support to the aviation unit of the Pakistan navy, according to the navy’s website.

Army Offensives

None of the six American contractors who help maintain the Orion aircraft at the base were injured during the attack, Pentagon spokesman Dave Lapan said in Washington. The Americans were employed by Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Maryland, and SAIC Inc., based in McLean, Virginia, he said.

Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan have escalated with American officials saying Pakistan’s intelligence agency maintains ties to guerrillas fighting American-led forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. military says its war against the Taliban is hindered by Pakistan’s failure to shut down militant havens.

Pakistan’s leaders have rejected accusations they aren’t doing enough to defeat insurgents. The army’s offensives against the local Taliban movement and allied guerrillas have triggered retaliatory attacks that the government says have killed thousands of Pakistani citizens and security personnel.

Academy Bombing

Twin bombings on May 13 at a Pakistani paramilitary police academy killed 80 people in what the Pakistan Taliban said was in part revenge for the killing of bin Laden and a precursor to attacks against the U.S. In the Oct. 10, 2009, attack on the army’s Rawalpindi headquarters, the Pakistani military freed 39 hostages after soldiers stormed a building and ended a 22-hour siege by militants.

“We need to change our mindset and cut ties with all jihadi networks,” Khan said. “These groups are now our enemy No. 1.”

(Updates with bombing in Peshawar in 10th paragraph.)
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