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Pakistan's military dismisses talk of a coup as politics heat up

Supporters of Pakistan's powerful military are criticizing the government over its nuclear weapons policy.

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Criticism of the government's national security credentials rose another notch on Monday in Pakistan's fiercely independent media, which have frequently clashed with the government since Zardari became president in September 2008.

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A leading English-language daily newspaper, The News International, reported that the government consistently had reduced funding to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program since assuming office.

Most budgeted funding was being spent on salaries and the security of nuclear weapons, leaving little for further technical development, the paper reported.

Pakistan has built a 10,000-man military force to guard its nuclear arsenal, partly in response to US concerns that a nuclear warhead could be seized by Al Qaeda or associated Pakistani militant groups.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a leading global watchdog on arms proliferation, estimates Pakistan's nuclear arsenal at some 100 warheads – about 20 more than India.

The newspaper report said shortfalls in funding had led to a "technical rollback" of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.

The office of Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Gilani, on Monday denied that funding had been curtailed.

India's ballistic missile program

The reported rollback was an apparent reference to Pakistan's decision not to respond publicly to unexpectedly rapid advances this year in India's ballistic missile program. Significantly, they have included the successful test in November of India's first "strategic" missile, the 3,500km-range Agni-IV.

The rising political rhetoric over Pakistan's nuclear weapons program coincided with the start on Monday of two days of confidence-building talks between India and Pakistan – the first in four years – aimed at reducing the risk of accidental war.

The talks also coincided with India's preparations for the test in February of Agni-V, a 5,500km-range missile dubbed the "China-killer" by Indian defense analysts.

Pakistan has, to date, not tested any missile capable of travelling more than 2,100 kilometers – the maximum distance to any Indian territory when various payloads are factored in, Pakistani strategic experts said. Pakistan was unlikely to respond to India's forthcoming missile test, because its own program is technically more advanced than India's, they said.

Pakistan doesn't consider it necessary to respond provocatively by re-testing a proven capability, they said.

"It is not always a question of whose missiles go furthest. It's more a question of having the capability to control flight path and range," said Maria Sultan, a think tank chief who advises the Pakistani ministry of defense on nuclear non-proliferation.

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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