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Real threat assessment of Pak nukes not yet made: US expert

Pakistan's nuclear assets may appear tempting targets for terrorists, but a noted American expert says the real threat assessment of this is yet to be made.

world Updated: Nov 17, 2011 14:44 IST

Pakistan's nuclear assets may appear tempting targets for terrorists, but a noted American expert says the real threat assessment of this is yet to be made.

In an article published in the latest issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Charles P Blair, Deputy Director of the Centre for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, maintains that the real threat assessment is yet to be made --one that goes beyond merely considering assumed terrorist capability and putative vulnerabilities.

"Pakistan's nuclear assets may be tempting targets for terrorists. Experts are split, however, on the actual threat posed. Some assert that Pakistan's nuclear assets are on the verge of seizure by terrorists, while others contend that the risk is minimal at best," Blair wrote in his paper.

"Because neither side develops robust or holistic threat assessments, however, American decision makers, who wisely include open sources when evaluating possible threats emanating from Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure, are not adequately informed," Blair concluded.

In his article Blair notes that Pakistan has long been considered a potential source of nuclear weapons for terrorists, even before it had a full-fledged nuclear programme and decades before it demonstrated a yield-bearing nuclear explosive capability.

"Two groups of experts stand on opposite ends of the risk spectrum -- these "optimists" and "pessimists" consider valid variables but fail to evaluate all the critical factors necessary for a methodologically robust and defensible threat assessment of Pakistan's nuclear assets, he wrote.

According to Blair, pessimists contend the risk has grown and "the safety and security of nuclear weapons materials in Pakistan may very well be compromised at some point in the future."

Indeed, for almost a decade there have been calls for US contingency plans to destroy, temporarily secure in place, or "exfiltrate" Pakistani nuclear assets -- its nuclear weapons and fissile materials -- in the event of widespread civil unrest or a governmental coup empowering Islamist forces, he said.

"In contrast, optimists maintain Pakistan's nuclear weapons infrastructure is secure and the threat posed by terrorists is overblown. Optimists say perceptions of vulnerability do not adequately consider the implementation of various technical precautions and advances in Pakistan's personnel reliability programme," Blair noted.

"Based on unclassified information, neither the optimists' nor the pessimists' positions are defensible -- in fact, both positions only review assumed terrorist capabilities and putative vulnerabilities of Pakistan's nuclear assets," Blair said.