WASHINGTON: India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has told President Obama that nuclear sites in Pakistan's restive frontier province are "already partly" in the hands of Islamic extremists, an Israeli journal has said, amid considerable anxiety among US pundits here over Washington's confidence in the security of the troubled nation's nuclear arsenal.
Claims about the high-level exchange between New Delhi and Washington were made in the Debka, a journal said to have close ties with Israeli intelligence, under the headline "Singh warns Obama: Pakistan is lost." The brief story said the Indian prime minister had named Pakistani nuclear sites in the areas which were Taliban-Qaida strongholds and said the sites are already partly in the hands of "Muslim extremists." A sub-head to the story said "India gets ready for a Taliban-ruled nuclear neighbor."
There was no official word from either Washington or New Delhi about the exchanges, with India in the throes of an election and US winding down for the weekend. But US experts have been greatly perturbed in recent days about what they say is Washington's misplaced confidence in, and lackadaisical approach towards, Pakistan's nuclear assets. The disquiet comes amid reports that Pakistan is ramping up its nuclear arsenal even as the rest of the world is scaling it down.
"It is quite disturbing that the administration is allowing Pakistan to quantitatively and qualitatively step up production of fissile material without as much as a public reproach," Robert Windrem, a visiting scholar with the Center for Law and Security in New York University and an expert on South Asia nuclear issues told ToI in an interview on Thursday. "Iraq and Iran did not get a similar concessions... and Pakistan has a much worse record of proliferation and security breaches than any other country in the world."
Windrem, a former producer with NBC whose book "Critical Mass" was among the first to red flag Islamabad's proliferation record going back to the 1980s, referred to recent reports and satellite images showing Pakistan building two large new plutonium production reactors in Khushab, which experts say could lead to improvements in the quantity and quality of the country's nuclear arsenal. The reactors had nothing to do with power-production' they are weapons-specific, and are being built with resources who diversion is enabled by the billions of dollars the US is giving to Pakistan as aid, he said.
Windrem also pointed out that Khushab's former director, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and offered a nuclear weapons tutorial around an Afghanistan campfire, as attested by the former CIA Director George Tenet in his memoir "At the Center of the Storm." Yet successive US administrations had adopted an attitude of benign neglect towards Pakistan's nuclear program and its expansion at a time the country was in growing ferment and under siege within from Islamic extremists.
US officials, going up to the President himself, have repeatedly said in public that they have confidence the Pakistani nuclear arsenal will not fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, and they have Islamabad's assurances to this effect. But scholars like Windrem fear Pakistan's nuclear program may already be infected with the virus of radicalism from within, as demonstrated by the Sultan Bashiruddin incident.
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