Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pakistani Contingency Plan?

Last week I came across this story on the Fox News site, and I thought I would put it out there for consideration:

The United States has a detailed plan for infiltrating Pakistan and securing its mobile arsenal of nuclear warheads if it appears the country is about to fall under the control of the Taliban, Al Qaeda or other Islamic extremists.

American intelligence sources say the operation would be conducted by Joint Special Operations Command, the super-secret commando unit headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Stratfor's George Friedman's America's Secret War had described the wrangling between Washington and Islamabad on the matter of their nukes in the months following 9/11, and the pressures which the US placed on Pakistan (mainly through overtures to its bitter foe India) to allow US operatives into Pakistan to work with the Paki military on securing those weapons. I remember thinking at the time that this was also a splendid opportunity to characterize in detail the location and nature of that arsenal, against a future need to deny them to any Jihadi-friendly elements of the Pakistani military and the ISI. This was another of those things which I was grudgingly comfortable not knowing about in detail, owing to the extreme sensitivity of the matter. It was a pretty big leap of faith, but I was reasonably confident that the Bush Administration took these things seriously enough to be working diligently behind the scenes, and to have a plan in the hopper in case the unthinkable were to occur.

I have no such faith in the seriousness of the Obama Administration. However, I do place a great deal of faith in the capabilities and focus of our Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces. If there is a way to neutralize those nukes and keep them out of the hands of extremists, then this is the bunch that will pull it long as their hands are not unduly tied by an irresolute and ideologically-blinkered C in C. In fairness to the Obama Administration, the article does sound this hopeful note:

JSOC is made up of three main elements: Army Delta Force, Navy SEALs and a high-tech special intelligence unit known as Task Force Orange. JSOC was instrumental in Iraq in finding and killing Abu Musab Zarqawi, the deadly and most prominent Al Qaeda leader in the Middle East.

There is speculation in the intelligence community that a secondary reason for Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal being named the next commander in Afghanistan is that he headed JSOC in 2006-08 and is read-in on its contingency missions in Pakistan.

I'd also had a feeling that Gen. McKiernan's replacement with Gen. McChrystal was related to the crucial role that Special Forces would play in the Af-Pak theater. Mainly, I saw this as the function of SF operators in the recruitment and training of indigenous assets, as well as intelligence gathering and assorted covert ops. However, the potential, in extremis, for deploying SF units in the service of taking Paki nukes off the table for Islamists demands a level of expertise on-site which Gen McChrystal would be able to bring. This may have been one of the sub rosa motivations for replacing the the very capable Gen. McKiernan so soon after he'd assumed his post.

As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, I stronly hope it does not come to that. It would enflame Pakistani nationalism and anti-Americanism to a very dangerous degree, and we would have to get it absolutely right the very first time. But if the alternative is losing track of even one nuke (or even critical components thereof), then the risk would be eminently worth taking.

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