ISLAMABAD — One of the more tenacious conspiracy theories that have taken root in the hothouse of Pakistan's capital is that Osama bin Laden was not killed in the May 2, 2011, Navy SEAL raid on his compound in Abbottabad -- that, in fact, he had already been dead for years, killed in the caves of Tora Bora.
According to this theory, the CIA had been keeping bin Laden's corpse on ice, literally, ready to be resurrected at a moment when his "death" could better serve U.S. interests. That moment came when the SEALs decided to conduct a dry run of their long-planned operation to snatch Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Bin Laden's thawing corpse was brought along as cover in case the exercise blew up -- and as a devious bit of political theater to besmirch Pakistan's reputation if all went well.
What keep conspiracy theories like this alive are bits and pieces of half-baked evidence that could be construed to support a deeply held belief. In this case, it is the belief -- accepted across the board in Pakistan, from the top brass of its military down to the dusty gaggle of taxi drivers who awaited me each morning outside my Islamabad hotel -- that the United States has a not-so-secret plan to snatch Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
The United States, which is duly concerned that Pakistan's nukes could fall into the wrong hands, almost certainly does have a plan to neutralize those weapons in the event of a coup or total state collapse. When the question was put to Condoleezza Rice during her 2005 confirmation hearings to become secretary of state, she replied, "We have noted this problem, and we are prepared to try to deal with it."
"Try" is the key word. Military experts -- American, Pakistani, and Indian -- agree that grabbing or disarming all of Pakistan's nukes at this stage would be something close to mission impossible. As one senior Pakistani general told me, "We look at the stories in the U.S. media about taking away our nuclear weapons and this definitely concerns us, so countermeasures have been developed accordingly." Such steps have included building more warheads and spreading them out over a larger number of heavily guarded locations. This, of course, also makes the logistics of securing them against theft by homegrown terrorists that much more complicated.
Fears of that terrifying possibility were heightened in August, when a group of militants assaulted a Pakistani base that some believe houses nuclear weapons components. Nine militants and one soldier were killed in a two-hour firefight at the Kamra air force base. The local media immediately floated the theory that this, too, was part of the American plot to steal Pakistan's nukes. But more disturbing than any conspiracy theory is the reality that this was the fourth attack in five years on the Kamra base, just 20 miles from the capital. At least five other sensitive military installations have also come under attack by militants since 2007.
Yet, though the danger of a loose Pakistani nuke certainly deserves scrupulous attention, it may not be the severest nuclear threat emanating from South Asia, as I came to realize after interviewing more than a dozen experts in Pakistan, India, and the United States this summer. Since the 9/11 attacks, preventing the world's most dangerous weapons from falling into the hands of the world's most dangerous actors -- whether al Qaeda terrorists or Iranian mullahs -- has understandably been America's stated priority. Yet the gravest danger -- not only for the region, but for the United States itself -- may be the South Asian incarnation of a Cold War phenomenon: a nuclear arms race.