Why Terrorists Never Have Gotten Hold of a Nuke and Why the Taliban Won't Be First

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Say things had gone a bit differently during the Taliban's attack on Pakistan's Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on Sunday. Say the Taliban had prevailed, then entered to find a nuclear weapon--far from implausible since Pakistan is believed to have 70 to 90 nuclear missiles secreted within its borders.

Taliban operatives probably would have wasted no time attempting to launch their new missile, as opposed to absconding with it, for several reasons, not least of which is that the weapon's radiation signature would be tantamount to leaving a note saying where they'd gone.

A potential launching hitch: For security purposes, Pakistan keeps warheads, other bomb components and delivery devices (rocket launchers, planes, etc.) in separate locations, guarded by 10,000 of the million-plus soldiers who in turn are part of the world's sixth-largest armed force.

It's not inconceivable, though, that Rawalpindi has what amounts to a plug-and-play nuke, perhaps an atomic demolition munition (ADM)--a sort of nuclear landmine. The Taliban could have had intel, possibly from a mole within the US-funded Strategic Plans Division that manages Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, that the ADM was on premises Sunday.

With the ADM in their power, Taliban operatives still have needed to navigate an elaborate command-and-control process. Among other safeguards, even the most rudimentary nuclear devices are equipped with Permissive Action Links (PALs), whereby three men are required to arm a bomb, each man privy to just one third of a complex numeric code.

So say, for argument's sake, that in Rawalpindi, the Taliban came into possession of exactly such an ADM, or about the simplest nuclear weapon to arm.

The three Pakistanis tasked to dial in its secret code would have been chosen after a lengthy check of their beliefs or other personal traits determined that they were the least likely to surrender the digits. But what if the Taliban had known the dialers' identities ahead of time? And what if they captured the dialers' loved ones and threatened to hack off heads until the PALs are dialed?

Thus, the Taliban could have the countdown clock ticking toward 0:00.

Of course that's assuming Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division officers neglected to have the PAL codes changed as soon as Rawalpindi came under attack. Probably they would done so the moment they learned the Taliban was even near Rawalpindi.

But say the Strategic Plans Division is compromised, or, for that matter, the whole of the Pakistani government somehow falls to the Taliban.

Taliban leadership may yet succumb to the Hirohito Effect: The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought Hirohito (or at least his decision makers) to the realization that Japan no longer faced mere brutal battles, but rather annihilation. And he laid down his cards.

Accordingly, the Taliban might think: Detonate the ADM, Pakistan gets turned into a lake.

If they think rationally.

The Hirohito Effect is mitigated by the Psycho-In-A-Bar-Fight Factor--perhaps our greatest fear. With a maniac at the button, cities in the Pakistani arsenal's 2,500-kilometer range could get turned into vacant lots.

Pakistan may think rationally in place of the Taliban, however. While dysfunctional as a nation-state, Pakistan isn't suicidal.

Zaffar Abbas, editor of Islamabad's daily Dawn, wrote that Sunday's attack:

[M]ay prove to be a watershed that compels the security and civilian establishment, as well as most of the opposition groups, to realise that the time to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' religious militants or Taliban was over, and a consensus was needed to confront all such groups as enemies of the state.

Also the United States may intervene, securing Pakistan's nuclear facilities. If Pakistan's neighbors don't get there first.

The Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, regards Pakistani nuclear weapons as the threat to India. Several intelligence community members have told me that India's knowledge of the Pakistani arsenal makes ours seem like Cliffs Notes. Fortunately, the Research and Analysis Wing is sharing what it knows with the CIA, among other liaison counterparts. And American intelligence on Pakistan has been relatively strong to begin with, notably on the counterproliferation side.

In 2000, the CIA attempted and failed to provide the Iranians with deliberately-flawed nuclear warhead blueprints. As a result of such efforts, however, try and find an Iranian nuclear scientist who doesn't fear that sabotaged components compromise his best efforts.

In April of this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern that Pakistan's safeguards were insufficient to deny terrorists "the keys to nuclear arsenal." Now, six months of scrutiny the wiser, she says, "We have confidence in the Pakistani government and military's control over nuclear weapons."

A Taliban strategist might counter: Who had more safeguards and government and military control than the Soviets? Look at what happened there.

Yes, he'll find 87,000 websites with "evidence" of lost "suitcases" and other loose Russian nukes. Yet all of the intelligence analysts and nuclear proliferation experts I've interviewed in research for my books give the notion of missing Russian nuclear weapons no more credibility than the details of Barack Obama's birth in Kenya.

True, after the Iron Curtain fell, hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear weapons were transported from the outlying republics on ancient coal-powered trains and Russian trucks that stall every other kilometer. For all the nukes to have made it home safe and sound seems an unprecedented logistical feat. On top of that, the Russians are famous for tripping over their own red tape.

Except when it comes to a nuclear warhead.

Losing one would be tantamount to NASA forgetting where they parked one of the Space Shuttles. The same holds true in all nations with nuclear weapons.

So here's a more realistic Pakistan bad-case scenario: The Taliban defies tremendous odds and breaches a Pakistani nuclear facility replete with a warhead. Without its short-range ballistic missile, launcher and codes, the warhead is of as much use to them as a car engine without a chassis, wheels and gas. And these items aren't readily available, especially with the Taliban suddenly surrounded by heavily-armored weapons and tactical specialists, far as the eye can see, locked and loaded, and champing at the bit.