On Friday, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported that U.S. military intelligence officials are trying to figure out what will happen to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if Pervez Musharraf, the nation’s leader, is overthrown. The strongman’s rule has looked increasingly fragile in recent months as a series of incidents has rocked the nation. CNN reports what everyone knows: Musharraf’s control over the military appears tenuous, as it is limited to influence over “top commanders and units.”

“Pakistan’s strategic assets are completely safe and secure, and the highest level of institutionalized protection is accorded to them,” the Foreign Ministry, replying to the CNN report, stated yesterday. “Pakistan’s command and control structure are not controlled by individual personalities but are institutionalized and multi-layered to ensure safety and security at multiple levels.”

Institutionalized? That is not comforting; Pakistan’s institutions are filled with fanatics. No matter how many internal checks exist, the country’s arsenal of about 50 nuclear devices could fall into extremists’ hands if there were extended turmoil in Islamabad.

Pakistan, unfortunately, is the nation that conclusively disproved the optimistic notions of “realists” like Kenneth Waltz, who argued that nuclear weapons made their custodians responsible. After all, generals like Musharraf watched Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, make deals with Libya, Iran, North Korea—and, undoubtedly, other nations—for nuclear technology. Two Pakistani nuclear scientists met with al Qaeda representatives in 2000 and 2001, which indicates the strength of the ties between extremist elements and the nation’s nuclear programs. And agents in the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, have provided substantial support to al Qaeda and the Taliban. If the country’s military and civilian officials act this way, just imagine what its rogue elements will do. It’s safe to say that there are few responsible custodians of nuclear weaponry in the Pakistani government.

If fanatics take control of Islamabad, will we be willing to insert our military into Pakistan to secure its arsenal? If we are not, then are we prepared to let al Qaeda become the world’s 10th nuclear power?

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