The Pakistan Predicament - Taliban and Nukes
On April 14th, 2021, President Biden announced that the U.S. Military troops would completely withdraw from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which had first spurred the U.S. to take military control of the country. However, the Taliban ultimately managed to storm Kabul and complete its own transition into power a month before that date, on August 15th. Coincidentally, this was also the anniversary of the formation of Afghanistan’s most intimate neighbor, Pakistan, whose turbulent history and nuclear status pose danger not only to itself and its neighbors but also to politico-nuclear stability globally. As Pakistan faces heightened aggression at the hands of local terrorists due to the swelling presence of their Taliban neighbors, it is imperative that imperiled nations like India and the U.S. provide Pakistan with diplomatic and military support to prevent its nuclear arsenal from falling into the hands of extremists .
U.S.-Pak Alliance and Pakistan’s Nuclear Program
During the Cold War, the United States was committed to containing the spread of communism and found a mutually strategic ally in Pakistan towards this effort. The United States provided military and economic aid to Pakistan following its independence from the British in 1947, which continued throughout the Cold War era. In turn, Pakistan allowed America to establish an ideal geopolitical headquarters in South Asia between Afghanistan, particularly during the Afghan-Soviet War, and India, with its Soviet-leaning foreign policy, to counter the USSR’s communist policies. Hence, as a major non-NATO ally of the U.S., Pakistan gained access to U.S. military technology and training, as well as preferential treatment in arms sales and other forms of military assistance .
Therefore, when Pakistan’s political nemesis, India, successfully became a nuclear power in May 1974, Pakistan was able to accelerate its own nuclear weapons program using American aid and military technology . Initially, Pakistan's ventures into nuclear power had been financed under the United States's "Atoms for Peace" program during the 1950s and 1960s – albeit for the stated purpose of aiding in peaceful energy research. Over time, despite strict guidelines intended to prevent the utilization of the program's funds for military purposes alongside threats of sanctions and aid suspension, Pakistan took advantage of U.S.-provisioned technologies to propel it to nuclear status by May 1998. Hence, the United States rightfully deserves part of the blame for the risk that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal now poses to the rest of the world, given that it utterly failed to recognize Pakistan's moves and rising religious extremism before it was too late.
Taliban, Pakistan, and Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan
During the Taliban’s insurgency against the United States military, Pakistan had been its main state benefactor and provided the Taliban with a safe haven in Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghanistan border to operate from . This support was based on Islamabad’s strategic interests against India’s regional hegemony and non-secular ideologies Pakistani Islamists shared with the Taliban, under the assumption that the Taliban would be beholden to Pakistan for decades of support. Unfortunately for Pakistan, the Taliban seem to have all but dismissed this premise and have been housing the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, in Afghan tribal areas along the Pakistani border, inverting the insurgency dynamics from the U.S.-Afghan War.
While Islamabad had often claimed that the TTP problem was largely due to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan paired with India’s covert relationship with the deposed Afghani government, the intimacy between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban exhibits that these extremist organizations prioritize their jihadist and Shariah goals over any other obligations. The extent of their closeness is evident from the Taliban’s release of hundreds of TTP prisoners and their exaltation to political asylum as soon as they took control of Kabul . In turn, official video messages display the TTP pledging their allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, portraying their gratitude and subordinating themselves to the Afghan Taliban as their leader. These developments are major causes for concern, especially because the Taliban grew close to the Pakistani administration during their insurgency against the U.S. during the War in Afghanistan, and seem more than willing to leverage connections within Pakistan to aid the TTP in their jihadist endeavors .
Increased Terrorist Activity and Threats to Nuclear Security
A threat to nuclear weapons security in any country is an alarming threat to security and stability worldwide. TTP spokespersons have been vocal about the group’s capacity to carry out attacks on nuclear installations and acquire nuclear weapons, while calling on Pakistan's nuclear scientists to join them and help develop nuclear weapons for the group. Moreover, given Pakistan’s intimacy with the Taliban during its insurgency against U.S. forces, there is a major insider threat from individuals within Pakistan's nuclear establishment who may sympathize with the TTP's ideology or may be susceptible to coercion or bribery. Such individuals could provide the TTP with sensitive information about Pakistan's nuclear program or facilitate access to nuclear materials.
The TTP's extremist ideology and willingness to use violence suggest that it would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if it were able to obtain them. With the Taliban spurring the TTP to intensify its insurgency against Pakistan by feeding its hopes of similar success as in Afghanistan, there has been an exponential increase in the number of attacks against Pakistani military and government installations . According to BBC Pakistan, a record 32 attacks were carried out within the month of August 2021, including some on potential nuclear bases, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and provided the TTP incentive to accelerate its efforts. However, the TTP’s furtive efforts toward taking control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are neither nascent nor dismissible. Of the numerous TTP attacks on Pakistani personnel and institutions over the last two decades, several have been aimed specifically at military bases with potential nuclear weapons or nuclear-capable aircraft.
The most significant attack was on the Sargodha Air Base in November 2007, which is one of the most important bases for Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Given that it was also one of the first attacks wherein the extremist group targeted Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, it raised immense concern globally regarding the effectiveness of Pakistan’s security measures. After all, if terrorists are able to infiltrate and challenge the country’s best-guarded military bases, it hints at the possibility of information breaches and moles within the Pakistani politico-military structure. A similar major attack targeted the Kamra Airbase in August 2012, wherein terrorists reportedly dressed in military uniforms and used automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to attack the base. Pakistani security forces eventually repelled the attackers, but the incident reiterated concerns about the security of Pakistan's nuclear facilities, and whether the global community could continue to trust Pakistan with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Only a year later, in August 2013, the Minhas Airbase, which allegedly houses nuclear-capable aircraft, was attacked, further testifying to the TTP’s increasing interest in Pakistan’s nuclear facilities .
Is the Extremist Nuclear Risk Realistic?
Aarish Ullah Khan from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) argues that the likelihood of a WMD attack by terrorists is remote, essentially because detonating a nuclear weapon requires a large amount of enriched radioactive material, which the TTP is extremely unlikely to acquire . However, smaller quantities of fissile substances can be used with nuclear detonators to spread radioactive materials in targeted areas, which would have long-term effects on victims similar to atomic bombs. Moreover, such “dirty bombs” can have a high psychological impact that could trigger massive retaliation from countries such as India. An additional risk exists wherein upon obtaining nuclear weapons or instruments, the TTP, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda may come together to disperse these materials for widespread use or to spur small-scale nuclear programs of their own, posing extreme danger globally.
The worst-case scenario pertains to the use of WMDs by jihadist extremists, causing widespread destruction in target areas and necessitating politico-military retaliation against Pakistan. However, as outlined above, this is highly unlikely. Unfortunately, more probable outcomes would still have grave consequences, such as the proliferation of nuclear and defense equipment by countries that have stagnated their nuclear programs, as well as accelerated nuclear programs by non-nuclear nations, to safeguard national security. Terrorist organizations having access to nuclear materials is especially worrying due to their decentralized nature and lack of regard for the dangers of mutually assured destruction (MAD). While MAD deterred countries from engaging in nuclear welfare during the Cold War era and continues to do so, the willingness of jihadist terrorists to engage in suicide bombings and guerilla warfare (think Mujahideens) exhibits that the TTP would certainly be willing to use available nuclear weapons to further their objectives . The danger of nuclear terrorism would increase exponentially if the TTP chooses to transfer acquired nuclear weapons to other militant groups like Al-Qaeda, who could use them to carry out attacks in other locations, threatening global security and making it difficult to track down those responsible.
Possible Policy Measures
While it has been nearly two years since the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan, and the global community might have shifted its focus onto more recent conflicts such as the Russo-Ukrainian War, it is imperative that international authorities keep a keen eye on extremist developments in Pakistan, given the gravity of their possible outcomes. Moreover, the Pakistani administration must be pressed to enhance its nuclear security measures to avoid any more infiltrations such as the Sargodha and Kamra Airbase attacks, and ensure nuclear security from external threats. More experienced countries like the U.S. and India must come forth and share nuclear security advice with Pakistan, such as the practice of disassembling and dispersing nuclear equipment when stocked, to further reassure the global community and downsize the risk of terrorists acquiring active weapons.
While it is essential to strengthen Pakistan’s defense against the Pakistani Taliban’s efforts, the international community must also engage with the TTP and Taliban to discourage them from pursuing nuclear weapons and governing power in Pakistan. The TTP’s past behavior suggests that it is motivated primarily by political and ideological goals, rather than a desire for nuclear weapons. This fact must be leveraged by offering incentives for the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban to engage in peaceful negotiations and refrain from violence, dissuading the group from seeking nuclear weapons .
In conclusion, the risk of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the TTP is a serious concern that requires urgent global attention. The consequences of extremists acquiring nuclear weapons would be catastrophic, and it is essential that the international community takes quick and decisive action to prevent a potential global catastrophe .
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