Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Thursday that Pakistan has dispersed its nuclear weapons throughout the country, increasing the risk they could fall into terrorist hands as Taliban fighters move closer to the capital.
Her comments came as new satellite images suggested Pakistan is increasing its capacity to produce plutonium, a fuel for atomic bombs.
Mrs. Clinton, testifying on Capitol Hill for the second day in a row, had earlier accused Pakistan’s government of abdicating to the Taliban. She was referring to a truce finalized this month that gave Taliban fighters control of a scenic valley just 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad, after two years of fighting.
“Why are we so concerned about this? One of the reasons is nuclear weapons,” she told a House Appropriations subcommittee Thursday when asked about the truce. “We spend a lot of time worrying about Iran. Pakistan already has them, and they are widely dispersed in the country — they are not at a central location.”
The imposition of Islamic law was part of the truce that gave the Taliban control of the Swat Valley. Within days of the agreement, the Taliban used Swat as a base from which to take control of another valley just 60 miles away from Islamabad.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office defended the Swat peace deal even as it deployed about 100 paramilitary troops in an attempt to reverse the Taliban’s latest conquest.
“Pakistan continues to play a positive and constructive role in the war against terror. It is victim of terrorism and with its inherent national resilience and strength, the country will succeed both against internal and external threats,” Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit told reporters.
Gunmen attacked the Pakistani force, killing one officer as local officials made an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate yet another truce with the Taliban.
On the nuclear front, U.S. officials said that Pakistan continues to expand and improve its nuclear capabilities, but they conceded that Washington has not discussed the issue with the Pakistanis in depth for several years.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, declined to be more specific.
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) released images Thursday from Pakistan’s Khushab plutonium-production facility that appear to support the U.S. assessment.
The organization said the images show that “major construction of the buildings associated with the second Khushab reactor is likely finished and that the roof beams are being placed on top of the third Khushab reactor hall.”
“This suggests that Pakistan is increasing its plutonium capacity, and went from one reactor several years ago to having three,” with the third yet to be completed, said Paul Brannan, senior research analyst at ISIS who co-authored an analysis released with the satellite photos. The institute is led by former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright.
Another think tank, the Arms Control Association, says on its Web site that Pakistan has about 60 nuclear warheads.
The latest satellite photos show a cylinder, a core component, inside the third reactor building. It is visible because the roof has not been completed.
In addition to the plutonium effort, Pakistan’s uranium-based — and its original nuclear — program, started by Abdul Qadeer Khan, has experienced “some growth” in recent years, Mr. Brannan said.
Throughout the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the United States has been a “worried bystander,” he said.
“The anti-terrorism agenda has pushed out the concerns about expansion of the nuclear program,” he said. “l’d like to think that you can do both at the same time.”
Pakistani officials have always insisted the country’s nuclear facilities are safe from terrorists.
“What we are sure of is that there is no likelihood of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or extremists,” a senior Pakistani official told The Washington Times. He requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration reportedly spent $100 million to help Pakistan upgrade security at its nuclear sites.
Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, said Pakistan’s nuclear weapons “are as safe as anything in the Pakistani military,” which he said “is the institutional backbone of the Pakistani state.”
But when it comes to defending the country from the Taliban and its allies, the Pakistani army suffers from “weakness and a lack of capacity” and “needs to be jolted out of complacency but it hasn’t happened. We are in for a tough slog,” Mr. Markey said.
The explosive mix of a growing nuclear arsenal and a growing Islamist insurgency reflects shifting ground beneath Washington and Islamabad even before the Obama administration has a chance to implement its strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Pakistan is facing societal shifts of great consequence,” Lisa Curtis, a South Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation, told a recent symposium on the region.
“The spread of a well-armed, well-prepared Islamic insurgency is starting to consume the country,” Ms. Curtis said.
She accused the government of President Asif Ali Zardari of “pursuing a policy of appeasement” by signing a peace deal in Swat, as well as a separate decision last week to free a militant cleric who led a 2007 standoff with security forces at the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad.
The siege brought militant Islam within walking distance of Pakistan’s parliament, Supreme Court and presidential offices. In the months leading up to the siege, Red Mosque vigilantes terrorized the city by attacking movie and music shops, kidnapping Chinese entertainers and heavily arming the mosque compound.
“We need a contingency containment strategy if the Pakistani military decides it’s not going to hold the line against the militants,” Ms. Curtis said.
Pakistan’s army has suffered a series of embarrassing defeats in nearly every battle against Taliban forces in the mountainous northwest. The Taliban has killed hundreds of Pakistani troops and captured scores, sometimes without firing a single shot, and traded its hostages for imprisoned terrorists.
• Sara A. Carter contributed to this report. Nasir Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.