Pakistan is an awkward ally to the U.S., to put it mildly. The relationship hasn’t really been the same since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. routinely violates Pakistan’s airspace and strikes Pakistani nationals with drones, while the Pakistanis harbored America’s whole reason for global warfare — Osama bin Laden.
It’s a complicated relationship.
According to the nonprofit Arms Control Association, Pakistan has at least 140 nuclear warheads and rather than secure them in fortified bunkers, Pakistan hides them in plain sight – by driving them through rush hour traffic in an unsuspecting delivery van.
In a shocking report from the Atlantic, it seems Pakistan’s military uses civilian vehicles without “noticeable defenses” dispersed throughout the country, driving in everyday traffic. The raid on Abbottabad only increased the number of nuclear weapons driving through Pakistan like Morgan Freeman drove Miss Daisy.
When Pakistan became a nuclear power in 1998, the world kinda cringed. It wasn’t only the idea of a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and its longtime enemy, India. It was the threat of terrorists getting a nuclear weapon, parts of a nuclear weapon, or even the fissile material used in them and then sneaking it out through Pakistan’s porous borders.
The Pakistani government assures you: there is nothing to be concerned about.
“Of all the things in the world to worry about, the issue you should worry about the least is the safety of our nuclear program,” an official at the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the Pakistani military spy agency, told The Atlantic “It is completely secure. … It is in our interest to keep our bases safe as well. You must trust us that we have maximum and impenetrable security. No one with ill intent can get near our strategic assets.”
But the United States is not the kind of country that takes chances with something like that. America already showed it can make an incursion into Pakistan to do whatever it wants (see: Raid, bin Laden). Shortly after the raid, NBC News’ Robert Windrem quoted “current and former U.S. officials” who said securing the Pakistani nukes has been a priority for the national security community since Pakistan became a nuclear state.
A former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, told NBC that the United States seizing Pakistani nukes would lead to all-out war between the two countries.
The 2011 Atlantic article recounts a number of militant attacks on Pakistan’s suspect 15 nuclear sites. The University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Index even showed a huge spike in terrorism-related incidents in the two years following the 2011 Atlantic article.
Between the attacks on their suspected nuclear sites and the looming threat of U.S. Navy SEALs coming to snatch them from secured locations the Pakistanis were at a loss for what to do with their nukes. That’s when they started using the delivery vans.
The number of attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear installations nearly doubled from around 1,200 in 2011 to some 2,200 in 2013. There are so many militant groups in Pakistan, the government and military are unable to track them all down. Maybe the delivery vans aren’t the craziest idea after all.
If it comes down to it, the United States has a dedicated team of special operations assets standing by to capture Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – if the Americans can find them.