When studying contemporary security issues, it is often very difficult to determine what is a fact. A single source, particularly a press account, can lead researchers astray. For example, early Thursday morning, nine men attacked Pakistan’s Minhas air base, part of a bigger aeronautical complex at Kamra. A spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility. The base is northwest of Islamabad, perhaps 25 miles away if you trust the New York Times, 37 miles if you believe the Washington Post, or 54 miles if you ask Google Maps. The specific distance from the capital is not particularly important, except for the fact that an attack on a military base near the capital might seem more worrisome than one further away. In this case, it is equally true to say that Kamra lies about halfway between Islamabad and Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The press has highlighted the attack in large part because “some of the country’s nuclear weapons are thought to be stored” at Kamra, The use of the passive voice—“are thought”—is a good move here. Who are these thinkers? I have always found open-source attempts to figure out where Pakistan’s nuclear assets are stored to be a bit of a fool’s errand. Reporting on this tends to be incredibly circular, and if you trace citations (when they exist) you almost always end up at Globalsecurity.org or Wikipedia. A few years back I did a quick look at the evidence as to whether Kamra held nuclear weapons and found the evidence unconvincing. It is likely true that the Mirage-5 aircraft, which reportedly operate from Kamra, are nuclear capable (paywall), so it is certainly possible that weapons or their components are nearby. It’s also possible that they are not.
Needless to say, this sort of opacity and secrecy about where your nuclear weapons are located is a good thing if there is a risk that a bunch of guys with beards and guns will be attacking your air bases. The New York Times tells me that U.S.-origin (and likely nuclear capable) F-16s operate out of Kamra. The ever-reliable Wikipedia suggests that the F-16s do not operate out of Kamra, but instead operate from Sarghoda and Jacobabad. The F-16s could be at Kamra for repairs or modifications, but their presence would have no implications for the presence or absence of nuclear weapons there. Kamra apparently houses the new Chinese-origin JF-17 fighters, but it seems possible the JF-17s at Kamra are just there for testing and evaluation prior to going out to other squadrons and, in any event, I have seen no reporting as to whether the JF-17 is nuclear capable.
This is not the first time Kamra, its ostensible nuclear mission, and danger have been in the news. On December 10, 2007, a suicide bomber attacked a school bus carrying children of Pakistan Air Force personnel outside of the air force base. This 2007 event was summarized by researcher Shaun Gregory as “an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra.” An attack on a bus near the air base becomes an attack on the air base. Nifty elision. On October 23, 2009, a suicide bomber did blow himself up at a checkpoint at Kamra, killing at least six people and wounding at least nine.
With all that said, Pakistan is not a safe place, attacks on Pakistani air bases are worrisome, and policymakers and the public should be attentive to nuclear dangers in Pakistan. But even if those general conclusions are true, lots of information you are reading about Pakistan is likely wrong. The hard part is there is no easy way to figure out what is incorrect and what is accurate. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder may have the keen eyes necessary to pick out at least fifteen sites across Pakistan with nuclear warheads or other nuclear materials, but perhaps they are overconfident in their ability to play the shell game associated with finding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
For what it is worth, my guess is that Taliban militants attacked Kamra not because of the possibility of finding nuclear weapons, but rather because exchanging the life of a poor Talib for a chance at destroying a fighter plane is a very effective use of a suicide bomber. Even more attractive for the militants, Pakistan may house its airborne early warning planes, Saab Erieyes, at Kamra, which would be very expensive for Pakistan to replace, something the TTP learned when it damaged P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft in an attack at a naval base in Karachi in May 2011.
But those are just my guesses. And all of those that write on evolving security situations in countries with opaque national security complexes ought to be much more explicit about the fact that guesswork is sometimes involved in determining which “facts” are really facts. If you have any doubts about how deeply difficult and flawed this fact-determining process can be, try to pin down the sources in some large political science database sometime. Those 1s and 0s start looking pretty blurry after a while.