With All Eyes on Iran, Who's Watching Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal?

Western officials fear warheads from Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could fall into clutches of Taliban.

Fear of the Iranian nuclear weapons development program has overshadowed the fact that not far from Tehran, actually right nearby, two countries, India and Pakistan, already possess nuclear weapons. Not just warheads stored in warehouses, but weapons that have already been tested and were even used to back up the two countries' reciprocal threats against each other.

These countries, unlike Iran, are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and one of them, Pakistan, faces a real threat to its ability to control all parts of its territory. This fear, along with the military actions of the separatists, the Taliban in Pakistan who recently attacked Pakistani military bases, are feeding Westerners' fears that the government will lose control over all its military capabilities, including its nuclear capabilities.

Between 50 and 80 nuclear warheads are stored in Pakistani warehouses, Western officials estimate, but apparently there is no exact information on where each of the warheads is located. This month investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in The New Yorker that the administration in Washington conducted negotiations with senior Pakistani officials about guarding against the threat of separatists gaining control of the nuclear arsenal. One of the suggestions, according to Hersh, was that the sensitive operating switches on the warheads be removed, and transferred outside the country.

Other reports in The Washington Post told of concern to the point that even a military operation was considered to take control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and dismantle it. However, in order to gain control of every warhead, it is advisable to know their locations.

In contrast to Iran, where the structure of power is clear and the decision-making process is in the hands of a hierarchy that so far has not displayed any disobedience among its ranks, Pakistan is a completely different country. The president, Asif Zardari and the army commander, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani cooperate fully with each other, but there is no guarantee that the entire senior army brass supports the president's steps and the war against Taliban terrorism.

Washington also plays an important role in deepening the suspicion around the president. When it talks with Pakistani political leaders about steps to safeguard its nuclear arsenal, the president's rivals see it as capitulation to and cowering before the Americans. Such an attitude does not help Zardari fight the Taliban or strengthen his position as a Pakistani nationalist in the eyes of his political rivals.

American involvement impacts not only Pakistani politics but also directly affects the security of nuclear arms there. Accordingly, the chairman of the Pakistani National Assembly's standing committee on defense, Azra Fazal Pechuho, suggested establishing a nuclear command authority to be headed by the president, with the prime minister serving as his deputy and the other members being the chief of staff, the defense minister and the interior minister. The bill's purpose is to remove exclusive control of the "red button" from the hands of the chief of staff, and transfer it to a more complex, multi-layered structure that will not rush - so it is hoped - to press the button.

However Pechuho's bill has so far not managed to pass because Zardari's political rival, Nawaz Sharif, opposes it. He feels the president cannot be trusted, and therefore is insisting that the chairman of the nuclear command authority be the prime minister, someone he does trust.

Washington is also not particularly enthusiastic about Zardari, and prefers to fortify its ties directly with Chief of Staff Kayani, who can at least guarantee continuation of the military struggle against the Taliban, and perhaps also the safety of the nuclear arsenal. It now seems that Washington will also not object to General Pervez Musharraf reassuming the presidency, and that with all due respect to Pakistani democracy, and primarily given the criticism Obama is receiving domestically, the war against terrorism is a more important objective.

Musharraf is apparently aware of the American position toward him, and has already started investing in a public relations campaign to improve his image in Pakistan, in order to ensure that in the coming elections the Pakistani public will not have to deliberate too much.

How much does democracy cost?

Hamid Karzai's inauguration for a second presidential term in Afghanistan included an encouraging speech, in which he promised to fight corruption in the country.

Yet it seems that the president's circle of advisers is not at all concerned.

Indian journalist Pratap Chaterjee, for example, published on the Asia Times Web site details of the rampant cronyism and corruption in the Karzai administration and among his associates, including his vice president, Mohammad Qasim Fahim. Fahim, who headed the Northern Alliance during and after the war and was the Afghan intelligence chief, at the time received huge sums from the CIA to fund the war against the Taliban; now Fahim's brother, Abdul Hasin, is receiving American money via the gasoline centers his company is supplying to the Afghan electric company, which is funded by American aid money.

Abdul Hasin has a fuel transport company called Zahid Walid, after his two sons, which transports fuel from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan.

This company wins all government tenders for the supply of fuel, thereby raising the price of electricity in the country at the expense of the Afghani and American taxpayer.

Another company, Ghazanfar, which is owned by associates of the president, also won giant tenders and in return granted an interest-free $2 million loan to finance Karzai's election campaign. Karzai also has a brother, who is suspected of running a large share of the country's drug trade.

It will be interesting now to see against which one of them Karzai wages his war on corruption.