Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Taliban's Atomic Threat

The extremists who harbored al Qaeda could get control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

At his press conference Wednesday evening, President Barack Obama endorsed Pakistan's official position that it has secure control over its nuclear-weapons arsenal. Mr. Obama said he was "gravely concerned" about the situation there, but "confident that the nuclear arsenal will remain out of militant hands."

His words are not reassuring in light of the Taliban's military and political gains throughout Pakistan. Our security, and that of friends and allies world-wide, depends critically on preventing more adversaries, especially ones with otherworldly ideologies, from acquiring nuclear weapons. Unless there is swift, decisive action against the Islamic radicals there, Pakistan faces two very worrisome scenarios.

One scenario is that instability continues to grow, and that the radicals disrupt both Pakistan's weak democratic institutions and the military.

Often known as Pakistan's "steel skeleton" for holding the country together after successive corrupt or incompetent civilian governments, the military itself is now gravely threatened from within by rising pro-Taliban sentiment. In these circumstances -- especially if, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified recently, the nuclear arsenal has been dispersed around the country -- there is a tangible risk that several weapons could slip out of military control. Such weapons could then find their way to al Qaeda or other terrorists, with obvious global implications.

The second scenario is even more dangerous. Instability could cause the constitutional government to collapse entirely and the military to fragment. This could allow a well-organized, tightly disciplined group to seize control of the entire Pakistani government. While Taliban-like radicals might not have even a remote chance to prevail in free and fair elections, they could well take advantage of chaos to seize power. If that happened, a radical Islamicist regime in Pakistan would control a substantial nuclear weapons capacity.

Not only could this second scenario give international terrorists even greater access to Pakistan's nuclear capabilities, the risk of nuclear confrontation with India would also increase dramatically. Moreover, Iran would certainly further accelerate its own weapons program, followed inexorably by others in the region (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey) obtaining nuclear weapons, perhaps through direct purchase from Islamabad's new regime.

To prevent either scenario, Pakistan must move to the top of our strategic agenda, albeit closely related to Afghanistan. (Pashtuns on both sides of the border are the major source of Taliban manpower, although certainly not the only locus of radical support.) Contrary to Western "international nannies," the primary conflict motivators in both countries are ethnic and tribal loyalties, religious fanaticism and simple opportunism. It is not a case of the "have nots" rising against the "haves," but of True Believers on a divine mission. Accordingly, neither greater economic assistance, nor more civilian advisers upcountry, nor stronger democratic institutions will eliminate the strategic threat nearly soon enough.

We didn't get here overnight. We are reaping the consequences of failed nonproliferation policies that in the past penalized Pakistan for its nuclear program by cutting off military assistance and scaling back the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program that brought hundreds of Pakistani officers to the U.S. Globally, this extraordinarily successful program has bound generations of foreign military leaders to their U.S. counterparts. Past cut-offs with Pakistan have harmed our bilateral relationship. Perhaps inevitably, the Pakistani officers who haven't participated in IMET are increasingly subject to radical influences.

Moreover, the Bush administration, by pushing former President Pervez Musharraf into unwise elections and effectively removing him from power, simply exacerbated the instability within Pakistan's already frail system. Mr. Musharraf's performance against the terrorists left much to be desired, and he was no democrat. But removing him was unpleasantly reminiscent of the 1963 coup against South Vietnam's Diem regime, which ushered in a succession of ever-weaker, revolving-door governments, thus significantly facilitating the ultimate Communist takeover. Benazir Bhutto's assassination, while obviously unforeseen, was a direct consequence of our excessive electoral zeal.

To prevent catastrophe will require considerable American effort and unquestionably provoke resistance from many Pakistanis, often for widely differing reasons. We must strengthen pro-American elements in Pakistan's military so they can purge dangerous Islamicists from their ranks; roll back Taliban advances; and, together with our increased efforts in Afghanistan, decisively defeat the militants on either side of the border. This may mean stifling some of our democratic squeamishness and acquiescing in a Pakistani military takeover, if the civilian government melts before radical pressures. So be it.

Moreover, we must strive to keep Indo-Pakistani relations stable, if not friendly, and pressure Islamabad to put nuclear-weapons proliferator and father of Pakistan's nuclear program A.Q. Khan back under house arrest. At the same time, we should contemplate whether and how to extract as many nuclear weapons as possible from Pakistan, thus somewhat mitigating the consequences of regime collapse.

President Obama's talks next week in Washington with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan provide a clear opportunity to take the hard steps necessary to secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and defeat the Taliban. Failure to act decisively could well lead to strategic defeat in Pakistan.

Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).


Lucky Charms said...

I don't mean to be harsh, but this sounds an awful lot like warmongering propaganda to me. Telling us that the only option is to go into Pakistan, mess with their government, and commandeer their weapons doesn't seem a wise move to me. It's for exactly those policies that groups like the Taliban hate us. Also, all the talk about preventing Middle-Eastern countries from acquiring nuclear weapons is a little disconcerting. Do I want radicals to have nuclear weapons? No. But if American can have them, then so should other governments be able to.

reagan 08 said...

John Bolton is an experienced diplomat with greater knowledge of the conflicts brewing in the Middle East than anyone at Papillion-La Vista South High School. He makes a great point about the possible future need to evacuate nuclear arms from Pakistan if extremists were to take power. If the Taliban or a similarly vehement group suddenly asserted itself and had access to nuclear weapons, then what else could we do to stop them from attacking our forces in the area or even attempting to strike the mainland?

The Professor said...

"If Americans can have them (nukes), then should other governments be able to?" The answer is no, the United States built the atomic bomb to end a war that had torn apart Europe and the Pacific Islands. Unstable governments should not be allowed nuclear weapons, because they then become easily accessible to radical groups bent on the destruction of a world who has done them no wrong.

Rambunctious Mongoose said...

The idea of an unstable government like Pakistan being in charge of a nuke is a scary thought to me. With the right amount of force and people, a group like the Taliban could easily take over the government in a coup. If the Taliban takes over, then who knows what could happen! They could take the nukes and just start shooting them everywhere and millions of people could die. But I don't think we have the right to go in and take over their government and all of their daily life. That would only increase the chances of a nuclear attack or any other form of attack towards the United States and/or it's allies, which would not end up good for anyone.

John Connor said...

Only two things can survive a nuclear attack...Cockroaches and me. I'm good to go.

i.heart.doritos. said...

I think its a very hard argument to make that we should go into Pakistan to control their country. I think that we should focus on controlling their nuclear forces with tactics such as anti rocket systems. Look at how we went into Iraq to find and destroy weapons of mass destruction, yet didnt find any. I dont think america can have another unsuported war.

The Non Bright Lamp said...

I think we should just keep Afghanistan and Iraq stable, since we already have troops there. Also, we should stop and realize that other countries CAN and WILL develop nuclear technologies. We can't tell all these countries that they can't have nuclear weapons. Who are we to say they can't? All we can do is help defend our allies from an attack. I think we should focus more on our problems here at home, rather than making sure everyone else doesn't have nuclear arms.

bulbasaur75 said...

I think that we should talk to the Pakistani government. We can offer our help and if they reject it so be it. But we need to make an effort or else risk one of the greatest threats we have seen in a long while. No nuclear or atomic weapon has been used in war since WWII do we really need to see that happen now? Especially when it is a nation that is renowned for its animousity against India which is also a key nuclear power. If we allow them to take control what happens if a nuclear war head is launched at India? World war three.

The Burninator said...

The way I see it, with this issue in Pakistan and the growing threat in Iran, the United States has two choices for the future.

Option one: Proactively deal with primary threats around the globe and do whatever provides safety for us. It may mean we lose soldiers in combat, and it will certainly mean our adversaries will only hate us more, but it will mean we are respected because we will be feared. Example: Many blantantly hostile dictators in the Middle East and northern Africa cooperated with the United States overnight after the invasion of Afghanistan.

Option Two: We relinquish our position as the world's super power. We only act through United Nations decrees and not by our own accord. We become isolationists, only dealing with issues if it troubles us within our borders, and only dealing with them internally. We value appeasement over conflict. We will become like the European countries, likely akin to Britain. Thus we will become a target, a victim susceptible to terrorism, one that capitulates to the demands of extremists in hopes of being left alone. We will be deemed weak by the world.

An example of this scenario? Well, look no further than December 7th, 1941.

We become isolationists, or we accept the fact that people will hate us no matter what we do and we defend ourselves proactively. That is the ultimate decision we must make, let us hope we choose wisely.

pawbearcatpaw said...

I think that if the U.S. can have them so can other countries. I don't agree with the possible outcomes of what could happen with them having nukes but we don't have the right to say they can't have them because they might be used against them. Honestly I think if we show we trust them and work well with them they'll be more cooperative with us. said...

nuclear war... or having the better possessing the ability to start nuclear war is a touchy subject.. and whatever the government decides to do should consider every possible outcome before deciding.. the fate of the world could depend on it.