The end of the world

Things are getting nasty: drug wars, nukes and even a near-miss asteroid.

On March 2, a 200-foot asteroid whizzed past Earth; we dodged a deep impact by a mere 40,000 miles. (For context: the moon is about 240,000 miles away.) Even better: we didnâÄôt notice the massive hunk of rock until three days before it passed. That doesnâÄôt give us very much time to get Robert Duvall on a space shuttle. But interstellar Armageddon is the least of our worries. WeâÄôve got H1N1 virus tearing through Mexico, shutting down most of the Mexican economy and leading President Felipe Calderon to suspend non-essential government work. And Vice President Joe Biden is telling us to avoid any âÄúconfined spacesâÄù like airplanes or subways. Mexico has enough problems without some super-virus tearing through its population. The escalating violence caused by drug cartels has people tossing around the words âÄúfailed stateâÄù when referring to Mexico. More than 6,000 people were killed last year, and the early 2009 returns havenâÄôt been any better. At this point, Mexico is a complete mess, and for an economy that relies heavily on tourism, the specter of drug violence does not help. People can think of better vacation spots than the middle of a drug war. Failed statehood isnâÄôt just a concern in Mexico, though. Pakistan is getting progressively worse. About a month ago, I wrote about Pakistan in this column, and I noted that the Pakistani government reached an agreement with the Taliban that allowed the Taliban free reign within the Swat province. That agreement hasnâÄôt exactly been held up. The Taliban has continued to move south, assuming control of a few more provinces. At this point, the Taliban is only about 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital city. Even if they never actually move to take the capital, the Taliban seems to have a clear plan: continue to gobble up territory, draining power from President Asif Ali ZardariâÄôs civilian government. The Pakistani military (a force not always totally aligned with the civilian government) has stepped up efforts to drive the Taliban out of Buner, one of the districts recently taken over by Taliban forces. The Pakistani military has lost fights with the Taliban before (which is why they signed the original agreement over Swat), so it remains to be seen whether this time will be different. But if not, the civilian government will continue to lose control of the country. And that raises the frightening question: What is to be done about PakistanâÄôs nuclear stockpile. The worst-case scenario is one in which operational nuclear warheads get loose. The bomb would be the Holy Grail for any number of terrorist groups âÄî groups that would not be interested in using them as deterrents (as national governments would). Their goal would be to actually use the bomb. So as you can no doubt see, this is a situation that needs to be avoided. ThereâÄôs a lot we donâÄôt know about PakistanâÄôs nuclear arsenal. We think there are about 100 bombs, but thatâÄôs really just a rough estimate. And when youâÄôre talking about nuclear weapons, thereâÄôs a big difference between 100 and 101. The locations of the stockpiles is another unknown âÄî even if we have a pretty good idea where the bombs are kept, if we donâÄôt know the precise number we wonâÄôt know if we have tabs on all of them. And so Pakistan is one place where, if things go sour, we wonâÄôt have much patience. If the government collapses, weâÄôll be in their posthaste âÄî and we probably wouldnâÄôt be the only ones. India has an obvious interest in making sure none of PakistanâÄôs nukes get loose, and Russia and China probably wouldnâÄôt take too kindly to that level of insecurity in the region either. Things in Afghanistan arenâÄôt getting any better, and Iraq seems to be getting worse. WeâÄôre seeing now the extent of the failure of the âÄútroop surgeâÄù that was supposed to bring lasting security: violence decreased as we ramped up U.S. military presence, but now that American troops are beginning to leave the killings are back. Instead of creating the sort of long-term peace that was supposed to be the goal, the surge was nothing more than a temporary measure. IraqâÄôs security forces are going to have to work fast, or things will unwind completely. A fair number of the recent casualties in Iraq have actually been Iranians. Iraq has closed a major port of entry on the Iranian border and sectarian tensions are once again flaring up on both sides. Most of the recent bomb targets in Iraq have been Shiite landmarks, and Sunni groups are claiming responsibility. The majority Shiite population has been repressed for a long time, and now that they have largely taken control old grudges are coming to a head. Iran, as a Shiite state, is always going to have influence within Iraq, so the continuing U.S.-Iran animosity is not making the changeover in Iraq any easier. Of course, Iran would still like to get their hands on nuclear technology. And North Korea, a country with successful nuclear tests under its belt, is acting up in a big way as well, having decided to put two U.S. journalists on trial for reporting on North Korean refugees in China. (The actual bogus charge is for illegally crossing the North Korean border, and there might eventually be some espionage charges tossed in.) All of these conflicts, with nuclear weapons at the center, throw into sharp relief just how important serious nonproliferation efforts really are. Maybe things will work out âÄî and maybe not. In which case, weâÄôve reached the End Times. Or maybe it just feels that way with Finals Week coming up. ItâÄôs all relative, I suppose âĦ (Postscript: This is my final column for the Daily. Thanks for reading âÄî itâÄôs been a gas. Be good to each other.) John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]