The Taliban’s Atomic Threat

John R. Bolton |  Wall Street Journal

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.