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Terrorism & Security

NATO dismisses nuclear security concerns after militants strike Pakistani naval base

The Taliban assault highlights military weaknesses but many experts say Pakistan adequately safeguards its nuclear arsenal against attack.

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Peter Galbraith, the former UN representative to Afghanistan, told The Los Angeles Times that people worried about nuclear safety are forgetting that infiltrating a naval base is very different from smuggling out a highly protected nuclear weapon. "It is one thing to be able to get 18 people into a secure base and kill 12 security guards. It is another thing to try to grab a nuclear weapon and take it out. And then what would they do it? Some of these concerns are overwrought," he said.

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The country has had nuclear weapons since 1972, obtained largely as a deterrent to its also nuclear rival, India. While the US and the rest of the world may be troubled by the military threat emanating from Pakistan, Pakistan's military is still more focused on being ready for a confrontation with India, Bloomberg notes.

A Christian Science Monitor examination of Pakistan's nuclear safety in May 2009 determined that while the Taliban has positions close to nuclear weapon facilities, the main threat does not come from the Taliban.

"But the notion of the Taliban as a conventional force able to overrun such sites overlooks the massive size of the Pakistani military, centered on the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, near where much of the nuclear infrastructure also lies.

"After a week of requests, Pakistani military officials failed to offer comment on their program's safeguards. But Pakistan has assured the West that certain procedures are in place. These include keeping warheads in a disassembled state, requiring multiple people to sign off on any activation orders, and so-called permissive action links that electronically lock the warheads unless codes are provided and environmental conditions – such as atmospheric pressure for plane-dropped bombs – are met."

The bigger issue comes from radicals within the ranks of engineers, scientists, and technicians – the country's educated elite. Regardless of where the threat lies, the US has taken the matter seriously. As of May 2009, the US had invested $100 million in the country's nuclear weapon security.

This week's attack has alerted Pakistan to weaknesses in its military facilities, however. According to the Hindustan Times, Pakistan's naval chief said that the military is considering moving the Mehran naval base that was attacked, as well as other facilities, away from residential areas that make it easier for infiltrators to approach undetected. While the Mehran base and others were built in initially underdeveloped areas, residential areas have sprouted up around them, compromising the military's ability to monitor people coming and going from the bases.

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