Pakistanâ€™s Bhutto assassinated
Attack jeopardizes elections, path to democracy in nuclear-armed nation
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday in a suicide bombing that also killed at least 20 others and plunged the nuclear-armed country into chaos ahead of a general election she had hoped to win.
The death of the charismatic former prime minister created fears of mass protests and an eruption of violence across the volatile south Asian nation, which also is a hotbed for Muslim extremists.
Pakistani troops were put on “red alert” across the country as President Pervez Musharraf blamed terrorists for Bhutto’s death and said he would redouble his efforts to fight them.
This is a country with no good options. President Musharraf has played with some democratic reforms, but that’s all. Former Prime Minister Bhutto was not once but twice removed from office due to corruption charges.
A lot of people will be quick to blame President Musharraf, as Miss Bhutto was his most serious threat in the elections, and stood a very good chance of winning, but there are certainly other possibilities, including Islamic extremists who would not tolerate being ruled by a woman, or third parties who thought that having the public blame Mr Musharraf would mean that he would lose, and someone else could win. I’m not foolish enough to jump to any conclusions until more of the facts are in — and even then, facts in that part of the world are often less than factual.
This would hardly rate a mention in the Western press, if Pakistan didn’t have nuclear weapons. Pakistan has had a nuclear program for a long time, beguin in 1972 under Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in response to India’s nuclear testing. Pakistan conducted six nuclear test detonations in May of 1998, which not only proved that Pakistan had nuclear weapons, but that it had enough nuclear weapons on hand to expend five in tests as responses to India’s 1998 tests.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that Pakistan has built 24-48 HEU-based nuclear warheads, and Carnegie reports that they have produced 585-800 kg of HEU, enough for 30-55 weapons. Pakistan’s nuclear warheads are based on an implosion design that uses a solid core of highly enriched uranium and requires an estimated 15-20 kg of material per warhead. According to Carnegie, Pakistan has also produced a small but unknown quantity of weapons grade plutonium, which is sufficient for an estimated 3-5 nuclear weapons.
Pakistani authorities claim that their nuclear weapons are not assembled. They maintain that the fissile cores are stored separately from the non-nuclear explosives packages, and that the warheads are stored separately from the delivery systems. In a 2001 report, the Defense Department contends that “Islamabad’s nuclear weapons are probably stored in component form” and that “Pakistan probably could assemble the weapons fairly quickly.” However, no one has been able to ascertain the validity of Pakistan’s assurances about their nuclear weapons security.
The left-wing British newspaper The Guardian reported that President Bush has been given a plan to seize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if it seems likely that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of extremists, but The Washington Post reported that there are some real intelligence gaps in being able to do so:
Pakistan Nuclear Security QuestionedÂ¹
Lack of Knowledge About Arsenal May Limit U.S. Options
By Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writer
When the United States learned in 2001 that Pakistani scientists had shared nuclear secrets with members of al-Qaeda, an alarmed Bush administration responded with tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment such as intrusion detectors and ID systems to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
But Pakistan remained suspicious of U.S. aims and declined to give U.S. experts direct access to the half-dozen or so bunkers where the components of its arsenal of about 50 nuclear weapons are stored. For the officials in Washington now monitoring Pakistan’s deepening political crisis, the experience offered both reassurance and grounds for concern.
Protection for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is considered equal to that of most Western nuclear powers. But U.S. officials worry that their limited knowledge about the locations and conditions in which the weapons are stored gives them few good options for a direct intervention to prevent the weapons from falling into unauthorized hands.
“We can’t say with absolute certainty that we know where they all are,” said a former U.S. official who closely tracked the security upgrades. If an attempt were made by the United States to seize the weapons to prevent their loss, “it could be very messy,” the official said.
If the Administration really does have a realistic plan for seizing that arsenal, the President ought to go ahead and issue the order. There are some times when you can’t afford to sit around and wait to see what happens.
Â¹ – The Washington Post, Sunday, November 11, 2007; Page A01