THE situation in Pakistan is volatile and dangerous enough without factoring in the nuclear issue. Yet it must be at the forefront of the minds of those inside and outside Pakistan who are working to bring the country back to a relatively stable condition. Regardless of who is president or prime minister, are Pakistan's nuclear facilities sufficiently secure? If an election were to return an Islamist coalition to power, whose finger would be on the button? President Musharraf has been asked these and similar questions directly and indirectly several times over the past decade and has always given reassuring, if vague, answers. But the truth is that probably nobody outside a tight circle in Pakistan, not even the Americans, know how big the nuclear arsenal is (perhaps from 50 to 100 weapons) and where it is to be found. When the United States and Pakistan restored relations after 9/11 Washington offered various forms of cooperation in nuclear matters but they were never accepted.

THE understandable anxiety felt is heightened by Pakistan's key role in the proliferation of nuclear know-how in the 1990s through the head of its nuclear programme, Abdul Adeer Khan, who helped Libya, North Korea and Iran to acquire nuclear technology. Khan is said now to be under house arrest in Pakistan and his network demolished, but the fact that he was able to operate quite freely during Musharraf's time leaves an uneasy feeling among many observers.