The instability of the Musharraf regime and uncertainty about its control of its "Islamic bomb"—actually an arsenal of nukes, including, reportedly, the long-range missiles they can be mounted on—has been a particular concern since 9/11. The key "unknown unknown" in the decision to invade Afghanistan was whether the considerable bloc of radical Islamist Taliban (if not al-Qaida) sympathizers within the Pakistani military and its notorious intelligence service, the ISI (which in fact helped create al-Qaida), would destabilize the Musharraf government.
We dodged a bullet then. But now the once-shaky Musharraf regime is on the brink of collapse. Musharraf has survived assassination attempts before, and there is little likelihood that the forces behind those attempts have a diminished appetite for his demise, literal or political.
And consider this: In recent years entire regions of Pakistan have become safe havens for al-Qaida and (quite likely) Osama. Is it not possible that instead of pursuing elaborate schemes to buy nukes on the black market or smuggle an improvised radioactive "dirty bomb" into the United States, al-Qaida has been biding its time, burrowing its way into Pakistan, waiting for the Islamic bomb to drop into Bin Laden's lap? (I know: not a great choice of metaphor.) Because he thinks long term, he doesn't have to try to scrounge up some "loose nuke" from the former Soviet "stans"; he can just wait. He's one coup—or one bullet—away from being handed the keys to an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Those keys: Throughout the years since 9/11, when Pakistan was supposedly our valiant ally against terrorism, various leaks and hints have offered false reassurances that the United States had in some way "secured" the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. That we were virtually in the control rooms with a hand on the switch.
But then, in the wake of the new threats to Musharraf's precarious regime, came the New York Times front-pager on Nov. 18 (one month after Bush's "World War III" pronouncement in the White House) on the nature of U.S. "control" over Pakistani nukes. The Times had held this story for more than three years at the behest of the Bush administration. This time, when discussion of the issue in Pakistan became more public in the midst of the crisis and the Times told the administration it wanted to publish, the White House withdrew its request for a hold. If people in the administration withdrew their request because they thought the story would be in any way reassuring, they are, to put it mildly, out of their minds.
The rumors circulating that the United States was somehow in Pakistani launch control rooms, presumably exercising some control, turn out to be—the Times story revealed—wishful thinking. In fact, the American efforts appear to have been aimed at preventing an "unauthorized" launch, a scenario in which al-Qaida or some terrorist group steals a weapon and tries to use it.
But the real danger is not "unauthorized" launches but unwelcome "authorized" ones. The real worry is what happens when Musharraf falls, which seems at least a good possibility. What happens if the authority to authorize alaunch falls into the hands of either al-Qaida-sympathizer elements in the military and intelligence service or, worst case, al-Qaida itself? After all, polls in Pakistan have consistently shown Bin Laden to be more popular than Musharraf. From a cave to a nuclear control room is not an utterly unforeseeable nightmare.
I think this is the urgent debate question that should be posed to both parties' candidates. What happens if Pakistan falls into the hands of al-Qaida-inclined elements? What happens if Musharraf hands over the launch authorization codes before he's beheaded?
Don't kid yourself: At this very moment, there's a high probability that this scenario is being wargamed incessantly in the defense and intelligence ministries of every nuclear nation, most particularly the United States, Russia, and Israel.
War is just a shot away, a well-aimed shot at Musharraf. But World War III? Not inevitably. Still, in any conflict involving nukes, the steps from regional to global can take place in a flash. The new "authorized" users of the Islamic bomb fire one or more at Israel, which could very well retaliate against Islamic capitals and perhaps bring retaliation upon itself from Russia, which may have undeclared agreements with Iran, for instance, that calls for such action if the Iranians are attacked.