A potentially earthshaking event whose potentials include everything from exacerbating the difficulties faced by allied forces in Afghanistan to the threat of “suitcase nukes,” and/or “INDs” (short for improvised nuclear devices), has gone by virtually unnoticed in the US media. That event, the word from Pakistan that the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, is ready to sever ties with the CIA, was reported on February 25th by Associated Press in the Hindustan Times, among other outlets.
While always a troubled and complicated relationship, the ISI states that cooperation with the CIA ceased as a result of the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis by Raymond Davis, a contract CIA agent. Davis and the US contend that he was acting in self defense against two men that were attempting to rob him and that in any event he ought to have been accorded diplomatic immunity.
That the ISI has been an unreliable ally in its dealings with the US for years is close to inarguable. Not only was the Taliban largely a creation of the ISI but, according to Michael Meacher of the British Guardian, the ISI may well have been a major facilitator of the 9/11 attacks, wiring $100,000 to 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta prior to the attacks. According to Meacher and others, ISI and Saudi involvement in 9/11 attacks were largely covered up, a cover-up that included redacting and classifying large portions of the 9/11 report, actions that have been cited by 9/11 conspiracy theorists as proof of a larger plot.
All of which is bad enough without the knowledge that Pakistan is the possessor of approximately 100 nuclear weapons. Were the ISI to begin actively aiding Al Qaeda or other terrorists (elements, at a minimum, of the ISI have long been friendly with a number of groups that the US, India and others consider terrorists), their long quest to acquire nuclear weapons might well become successful.
If that nightmare scenario is now at hand how likely is the realization of “the sum of all fears,” a nuclear attack on a US city or number of cities, and what can be done to deter or stop it?
Assurances that suitcase nukes did not pack the nuclear punch of warheads was hardly reassuring. A 10 kiloton device (about half of Hiroshima) would do incredible damage in the heart of a major city. Besides, I saw some estimates of suitcase nukes with as much as a 375 kiloton yield. Worse, INDs contained within a truck, for example, could approach the impact of a warhead. Others tried to reason away the fear by stating that those that supplied the suitcase nukes (in this case it was assumed that it was a government knowingly doing so, possibly a scenario involved the Iranians), would be creating a situation where the suitcase nukes might well be used against them. Of course, a dedicated suicide team would cancel out that wishful thinking. Of course, a US sponsored team with suitcase nukes might decide to take out the source of terrorist nukes just as easily as terrorists might take out a US or other city, and with just as much plausible deniability. The likelihood of that is also wishful thinking.
The target of a suitcase nuke will point directly to the culprits. An attack on Iranian facilities will be blamed on the US and/or Israel, while an attack on Pakistani facilities will have to include India as a suspect. Similarly, attacks on the West will be likely be seen as emanating from Islamists unless unusual tensions exist between the Westt and China or Russia.
Another site encourages us not to worry as suitcase nukes “require constant maintenance.” Gloomy Gus that I am, that is hardly reassuring. A group committed enough to have individuals kill themselves for the glory of Allah or whatever certainly could be bothered to perform a few maintenance operations.
That leaves deterrence. The French went to the extraordinary lengths of stating that if France was attacked by any nuclear weapon, suitcase, IND or otherwise, it would respond with nuclear weapons. Their arsenal is on a par with China’s so that is no empty threat. Of course, that assumes that the government can find anyone to blame. In this case, it seemed clear that the threat was mostly aimed at Iran. Would the French or the US respond to an attack if the source of the suitcase nuke was not entirely clear? The answer also is unclear and that is most unsettling.
Sometime in 2004 (I was living in Seattle then) I began to hear rumors that in response to 9/11 submariners at the Bangor Trident base had begun taking targeting information on Mecca, Medina and in some cases the Pakistani frontier and nuclear installations and even population centers aboard ship with them. That is significant because a nuclear submarine alone is the only part of the strategic nuclear deterrent that can act on its own. A ship’s captain or even a crew mutiny could cause the Trident sub to launch their missiles. A single Trident could decimate the population of most of the world depending on how they were targeted. The environmental damage would take generations to heal. Is this the reason that Al Qaeda has not yet set off a suitcase nuke somewhere?
Interestingly, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo may well have stumbled across this or perhaps he was just stating the obvious when he was asked how we might respond to a suitcase nuke attack. His “bomb Mecca” statement was held up as a laugh line by many columnists, or as is the case with Mike Littwin at the Post, proof that Tancredo was too unstable for higher office. Yet with this new development Tancredo may prove prophetic.