Nuclear babies stillborn

Posted: Nov 19, 2001 12:00 AM
The Northern Alliance gang in Kabul reports that our Air Force had a really good hit, an American rocket that opened up a Taliban compound that seems to have been a library/laboratory for ultimate war. It stored, in the account of The Associated Press, "room after room filled with papers, formulas and maps ... some with handwritten Arabic notations." The Times of London reported written "descriptions of how the detonation of TNT compresses plutonium into a critical mass, sparking a chain reaction, and ultimately a thermonuclear reaction."

There is a way of contriving an optimistic reading of the Kabul compound library, with scattered notes on weapon construction. We can say we don't have much to fear from people who need Atom Bombs for Dummies manuals. That's true, but also it is apparently true that not a great deal of sophistication is required, given presumptive knowledge of modern scientists, to piece together a nuclear device.

On the specific question of such weaponry in Afghanistan, we bear in mind that President Bush has declined to say that we know the enemy to be without a nuclear repository. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld would go no further than that he "doubted" they had such weapons. We know that two Pakistani nuclear scientists sympathetic to the Taliban were brought in and questioned in Islamabad. Stretching away from believable commentators on the question, we get to the statement of Osama bin Laden, that in the event the United States used chemical or nuclear weapons he would retaliate in kind.

How far they are (were) from developing a dirty bomb is a fit study for the Rand Corp. in years to come. What is a fit subject for the moment is concern over the critical need to take the loose information we've gotten from the sorcerers' apprentices loose in Afghanistan and apply it to strategic action elsewhere, specifically, Iraq.

One reasons reasonably in the matter of nuclear weapons. If we learned at midnight that the Swiss had developed a nuclear bomb, we could turn over in our beds and go back to sleep. On the other hand, we know there are active leaders in the world who, if they had the stuff and could profitably deploy it, would not hesitate, for moral reasons, to do so.

Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq. In decades to come it will strike Western moralists as simply unbelievable that, in the 1990s, the United States failed to force its hand against Iraq, notwithstanding that it had international sanction for probing the country for its little quarries of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

With the confidence that has come to us this week on the tide of our achievements in Afghanistan, we need to press on in the direction of pursuing al-Qaida wherever it festers, and Iraq is the most qualified target.

In The New York Times, William Safire worried last week about the presidential decision to empower military courts to administer justice. He proposed an arresting compromise, namely to inform Osama bin Laden, or whoever is left in the crypt in which he is found, that we require the surrender of the al-Qaida organization wherever it is encysted, whether in Pakistan or in Libya or in the Philippines or in Indonesia: They must give themselves up or endure the relatively undiscriminating brunt of general wars in the style of ours against Afghanistan.

The idea of an ultimatum is appealing, and ours to Saddam Hussein would be: Remove yourself and your court to the island of Elba or on Day 3 the following airfields, arsenals and military camps will be bombed; on Day 5, the following industrial centers; on Day 7, the internal transportation system. Upon your removal, with guaranteed personal safety, an Iraqi unit will exercise power in Baghdad under a U.S./U.N. mandate to identify and eliminate every trace of atomic/biological/chemical research and material.

Remember, too, that we are discovering in Afghanistan the true human subculture, which is the response to liberation, expressed there by shaving beards and removing burqas from the women. After Iraq cooled down, even as France cooled down after Napoleon was finally, verifiably off, we could expect the relief, felt particularly in Iraq, and derivatively in humankind.