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Why US is willing to strike but afraid to wound Pakistan

May 09, 2011 13:04 IST

Security experts say that after publicly condemning Pakistan for its role in the bin Laden debacle, threatening it with sanctions and cutting off crucial aid, the US would quietly re-calibrate its security ties with Islamabad over the next few weeks as it could ill-afford to alienate it. Rahul Bedi reports

Osama bin Laden's killing by American commandoes in a Pakistani cantonment earlier last week, has once more inflamed tensions between Islamabad and Washington but it was highly unlikely that their tempestuous relationship, bordering at times on the bizarre, faced imminent breakdown.

Indian and Western analysts said Pakistan's strategic weapons cache made it impossible for the US to impose any long-term or crippling punitive measures on Islamabad for reportedly harbouring bin Laden or for its perceived duplicity in participating in the war on terrorism on the one hand and covertly aiding Islamist jihadists on the other. 

"The US and indeed the world remain terrified by the apocalyptic prospect of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands," former Indian Lt General Vijay Kapur said.

Therefore, the US cannot push Pakistan too far, however displeased it may be with it over the bin Laden episode. It wants to ensure the safety of its strategic assets by remaining closely engaged with Islamabad, he added.

Senior Pakistani military officials recently warned against US moves to try and 'seize' their country's atomic weapons in a raid similar to the one executed on Monday against bin Laden's hideout in the garrison town of Abbottabad, 100 km north of the capital Islamabad. 

Other security experts said after publicly condemning Pakistan for its role in the bin Laden debacle, threatening it with sanctions and cutting off crucial aid, the US would quietly re-calibrate its security ties with Islamabad over the next few weeks as it could ill-afford to alienate it.      

Besides, as long as US troops remain in landlocked Afghanistan, dependent on Pakistan's port and road network to ship supplies, Islamabad remains confident that Washington would never dare cut the purse strings.

"There is no option (for the US) but to cooperate (with Pakistan)," warned Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai.

Others said that Pakistan's crucial geographical location bordering Afghanistan made its strategic importance to the US and its NATO partners "unassailable".

The raid by US Navy SEALs on bin Laden's Abbottabad hideout, arguably America's biggest victory in the war on the Al Qaeda, came at a time when intelligence cooperation with Pakistan was at an all-time low.  

In a highly public and damning indictment of the loyalty of an official ally, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency Leon Panetta said Islamabad was not informed of the strike because it agents -- primarily the army and the country's omnipotent Inter Services Intelligence directorate -- could have tipped bin Laden off.

US-Pakistan ties remain mired in suspicion 10 years after their hastily stitched together alliance following the 9/11 attacks after Islamabad reportedly abandoned the Taliban it helped create and install in Kabul.

But over the years a beleaguered Pakistan has cleverly played on US fears of its nuclear assets falling into Islamist hands and managed to extract vast treasure and materiel from Washington to prevent this from happening.

And in January an emboldened Pakistan announced it would expand its nuclear deterrence against neighbouring rival India by producing additional strategic weapons of which it is believed to have between 80 and 100 and a robust missile arsenal to deliver them to extended distances.

And though Pakistan has repeatedly assured the US and the rest of the world that its nuclear assets are in safe hands, serious doubts persist among its detractors.

Pakistan is the sole Islamic state with nuclear weapons and one where the atomic arsenal is controlled almost exclusively by an increasingly "Islamised" military that remains the country's most powerful institution.

The arsenals' location remains a closely guarded secret but Western intelligence sources believe they are secreted in Islamabad's 'proximity', with the warheads and delivery systems separated.  

Islamabad's record in nuclear proliferation too is, at best, dubious.

Its top atomic scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was exposed in 2004 as the head of an international black market operation in nuclear technology working reportedly in collusion with the military, leaking lethal secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea in exchange for large sums of money and long range missile designs.

Pakistani nuclear scientists are even believed to have travelled to Afghanistan to meet with the Al Qaeda leadership when the Taliban controlled Kabul before being ousted by the US-led coalition in 2001.

Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is managed by the National Command Authority that includes the associated Employment Control Committee, the Development Control Committee and the Strategic Plans Division all overseen by a select group of military-dominated officials.  

In past years Pakistan has confirmed that the US was helping to ensure the security of its nuclear weapons but declined to elaborate.  

It reiterated that the security of Pakistan's nuclear assets was 'foolproof' and advised against creating irresponsible alarm.

It has also repeatedly declared that it was capable of defending its nuclear interests and cautioned those "contemplating misadventures".

US media reports some time ago revealed that Washington had spent $100 million in helping secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons against theft and accidents, a claim Islamabad denies.

Rahul Bedi in New Delhi