The Pakistani army, backed by attack helicopters, is fighting intense gun battles in the Swat valley 60 miles outside the capital of Islamabad with Islamic extremists. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have struck back with suicide bombs in Pakistan’s major cities, including Lahore. A plot in Karachi was foiled but the extremists vow more carnage is imminent.
The battles are the latest in a deadly struggle for the control of Pakistan. Some are hoping this, at last, is the turning point when the army and the Pakistani government will finally defeat the extremists, but history suggests that conclusion is premature. More likely this will be yet another temporary setback for the Islamists to be followed by new advances elsewhere.
The fighting has cast a spotlight on the shaky security of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal—the fastest growing arsenal in the world. Pakistan is finishing construction of several new reactors and is seeking to buy more from China to increase its production of fissile material. The United States has provided Pakistan with over $10 billion in military aid since 2001. No one outside Pakistan can say if some of that money was diverted directly to the nuclear program by the army, but undoubtedly the U.S. assistance indirectly made it easier for the army to use its own funds to accelerate the development of its nuclear weapons.
Today the arsenal is under the control of its military leaders; it is well protected, concealed and dispersed. But if the country fell into the wrong hands—those of the militant Islamic jihadists and al Qaeda—so would the arsenal. The U.S. and the rest of the world would face the worst security threat since the end of the Cold War. Containing this nuclear threat would be difficult, if not impossible.
The danger of Pakistan becoming a jihadist state is real. Just before her murder in December 2007, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said she believed al Qaeda would be marching on Islamabad in two years.A jihadist Pakistan would be a global game changer—the world’s second largest Muslim state with nuclear weapons breeding a hothouse of terrorism.
Yet it’s not inevitable. For the past 60 years, U.S. policy toward the country has been inconsistent and mercurial, rife with double standards with Pakistan’s neighbor India. Increasing calls to “secure” the country’s nuclear weapons by force are far from productive—in fact, it’s making serious work with Pakistan more difficult.
Pakistan is a unique nuclear weapons state. It has been both the recipient of technology transfers from other states and a supplier of technology to still other states. It has been a state sponsor of proliferation and has tolerated private sector proliferation as well. Pakistan has engaged in highly provocative behavior against India, even initiating a limited war, and sponsored terrorist groups that have engaged in mass casualty terrorism inside India’s cities, most recently last November in Mumbai. No other nuclear weapons state has done all of these provocative actions.
The origins of the Pakistani nuclear program lie in the deep national humiliation of the 1971 war with India that led to the partition of the country, the independence of Bangladesh and the destruction of the dream of a single Muslim state for all of south Asia’s Muslim population. The military dictator at the time, Yaqub Khan, presided over the loss of half the nation and the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani soldiers in Dacca. The Pakistani establishment determined it must develop a nuclear weapon to counter India’s conventional superiority.
The new prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, convened the country’s top 50 scientists secretly in January 1972 and challenged them to build a bomb. He famously said that Pakistanis would sacrifice everything and “eat grass” to get a nuclear deterrent.
The 1974 Indian nuclear explosion only intensified the quest. Mr. Bhutto received an unsolicited letter from a Pakistani who had studied in Louvain, Belgium, Abdul Qadeer Khan, offering to help by stealing sensitive centrifuge technology from his new employers at a nuclear facility in the Netherlands. Over the next few years—with the assistance of the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)—Mr. Khan would steal the key technology to help Pakistan produce fissionable material to make a bomb.