In the years of the Cold War, the nuclear alarm would sometimes sound over a confrontation in Berlin in 1961 or the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. I can remember school kids burrowing under their desks in civil defense drills. But in the arms-control sessions I attended over the years, the consensus was that the world was less imperiled from weapons under reasonably stable control in Russia and the United States than the weapons that might fall into the hands of insurgents or terrorists in some Third World country with a tottering government.
Pakistan today is a likely candidate for that description. Pakistan is believed to have about 60 nuclear weapons, originally assembled to match India's nuclear arsenal. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that they are "widely dispersed." Their control rests officially in the hands of the National Command Authority, including representatives of the government and the military. But that seems to be mainly for show, and it is probable that only a handful of the military elite has real knowledge of their location. Although the United States has given $100 million to protect the sites, American officials say, they have not been told where they are.
President Obama says he is sure that the nuclear weapons are secure and the Pakistani government is aware of the danger of their falling into the wrong hands. But as Taliban militants widen their grip on more and more parts of the country, there is reason for apprehension.
A Pakistani journalist now in this country, Ahmed Rashid, writes in The Washington Post that his country, threatened by the Taliban offensive, is faced with chaos. The National Security Council has been working on a comprehensive review of what might happen to Pakistan's nuclear weapons in an emergency.
So over President Asif Ali Zardari's meeting with Obama hangs a pall of dread of what arms controllers have feared for a half century: the day of loose nukes in hostile hands.