US Prepares for Worst-Case Scenario With Pakistan Nukes


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Breaking News

By Robert Windrem
NBC News Investigative Producer for Special Projects

As U.S.-Pakistani relations spiral downward, the specter of a showdown between the increasingly antagonistic allies is garnering more attention, including the worst-case scenario of the U.S. attempting to “snatch” Pakistan’s 100-plus nuclear weapons if it feared they were about to fall into the wrong hands.

That would be a disastrous miscalculation, former Pakistani President and army chief Pervez Musharraf told NBC News, saying that such an incursion would lead to “total confrontation” between the United States and Pakistan.

Ispr / EPA

A Medium Range Ballistic Missile Hatf V (Ghauri) missile takes off during a test fire from an undisclosed location in Pakistan on Dec. 21 in this photo distributed by the Pakistani military. The liquid-fuel missile can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads and has a range of more than 800 miles.

Privately, current and former U.S. officials say that ensuring the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has long been a high national security priority, even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and that plans have been drawn up for dealing with worst-case scenarios in Pakistan.

The greatest success of the U.S. war on terrorism – the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden in his safehouse in Pakistan in May – has fueled the concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, increasing suspicions among U.S. officials that he had  support within the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, and emboldening those in Washington who believe an orchestrated campaign of lightning raids to secure Pakistan’s nukes could succeed.

It’s no secret that the United States has a plan to try to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons — if and when the president believes they are a threat to either the U.S. or U.S. interests. Among the scenarios seen as most likely: Pakistan plunging into internal chaos, terrorists mounting a serious attack against a nuclear facility, hostilities breaking out with India or Islamic extremists taking charge of the government or the Pakistan army.

In the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, U.S. military officials have testified before Congress about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the threat posed by “loose nukes” – nuclear weapons or materials outside the government’s control. And earlier Pentagon reports also outline scenarios in which U.S. forces would intervene to secure nuclear weapons that were in danger of falling into the wrong hands.

But out of fear of further antagonizing an important ally, officials have simultaneously tried to tone down the rhetoric by stressing progress made by Islamabad on the security front.

Such discussions of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, now believed to consist of as many as 115 nuclear bombs and missile warheads, have gotten the attention of current and former Pakistani officials. In an interview with NBC News early this month, Musharraf warned that a snatch-and-grab operation would lead to all-out war between the countries, calling it “total confrontation by the whole nation against whoever comes in.”

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