In the movie Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), based on the US role in the Soviet-Afghan war, the protagonist fears about the consequences of abandoning a post-war role in Afghanistan. Fact pursued history, because in the years that followed, the Taliban stepped in to impose a beastly medieval society, mentored terrorist outfits and played midwife to attacks such as the 2001 Kandahar hijack and 9/11.
Eight years after the Taliban were driven out, a deadlier history might repeat itself, if not handled properly. A hazy withdrawal plan from Afghanistan, alongside talks of engaging a “moderate Taliban”, appears potentially catastrophic. Today, the Taliban have supporters in the Pakistani army, prop up the Al Qaeda and have a subcontinental presence across two countries. Consequently, the terror network is disturbingly closer to a vulnerable Pakistani nuclear arsenal, with serious consequences for India.
Al Qaeda has never hidden its desire for nuclear weapons. In 1993, it tried to purchase highly enriched uranium in Sudan. Five years later, Osama bin Laden declared that Muslims had a religious duty to acquire a bomb. He and his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri met two Pakistani nuclear scientists and explored A.Q. Khan’s supermarket. Given the collusion between terrorists and state representatives, accessibility to sites and key geographical factors, nuclear sites in Pakistan pose a dangerous global terrorist threat.
In the 1980s, Pakistan built its nuclear sites in the north and west to prevent India from overrunning them. Ironically, these sites lie in Wah, Fatehjang, Golra, Sharif, Kahuta—places now dominated by the Pakistani Taliban. So, can terrorists attack a nuclear complex here and seize control? Not theoretically, since Pakistan adopts security measures where components are kept separated under dual control to prevent sabotage. Its Strategic Plans Division, which guards the sites, has traditionally inducted personnel from Punjab instead of the radicalized Pashtun belt.
What changes equations, however, is the unholy nexus amid a fragile political structure. Shuja Nawaz notes in his Crossed Swords (2009) that recruitment of soldiers from Punjab declined from 64% in 1991 to 43% in 2005. During Zia-ul-Haq’s reign, radical elements began penetrating the army. Young officers grew up hobnobbing with fundamentalist mullahs and terror outfits. These officers—who have now risen to occupy sensitive, senior positions in the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—look up to people such as Hamid Gul, former ISI chief and confidant of the Jamaat-ud-Dawah.
Terrorist groups may not have direct expertise to mount a nuclear strike or even make a gun-assembled bomb. That’s where collusion with establishment insiders becomes important for acquiring lighter weapons and dirty bombs. The Khushab production centre aims to make plutonium-based weapons with high explosive yield that are easily deliverable. Situated on the Punjab border with North-West Frontier Provinces, Khushab is vulnerable to heavy fighting between the army and the Taliban. There have been three strikes on nuclear sites across Pakistan till now. In 2008, suicide bombers even blew up the gates to one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites at Wah in north Pakistan.
Security analyst Shaun Gregory thinks Pakistan’s safeguard of separating nuclear components may be compromised while trying to assemble them quickly in need. A feeble government could be blackmailed to shift weapons to terrorists.
A nuclear Iran disconcerts the West, but nuclear terrorism in Pakistan holds the more real and immediate threat. An international presence that polices nuclear installations on the Af-Pak border may not sound utopian, but then Afghanistan has never been a Utopia either. An exit without securing such threats will give space to terrorists to unleash an event that surpasses 9/11.
Probal DasGupta is a geopolitical risks and security management specialist. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org