Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Eye of the Storm

Written by Yoram Schweitzerand and Ephraim Asculai

May 12, 2009
by Yoram Schweitzerand and Ephraim Asculai
INSS Insight No, 106

Over the past weeks, the US has accelerated efforts to confront the danger to world peace and its own security arising from the security situation in Pakistan. In a statement to Congress, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was quoted as saying that the ongoing deterioration in the internal security situation of the nuclear Islamic country and the possibility that its government would fall into the hands of extreme Islamic elements constituted a danger to the US and world peace. Secretary Clinton's remarks implied criticism of the agreement signed by Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari with the Taliban, an agreement that in effect recognized the latter's control of the Swat valley, which enables it to impose its control and extreme religious way of life on the residents of the region (including gross violations of women's rights).

Soon thereafter President Barack Obama himself became involved by urgently summoning Zardari and Afghan president Hamid Karzai to discuss the burning issues. The first topic he raised was the war against the Taliban in the western regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Obama's purpose here was to motivate his guests to combat the Taliban more vigorously, since a collapse on this front would be disastrous. The second and closely related topic is the nuclear question and the concern that such weapons could fall into the hands of parties identified with extremist Islam, especially al-Qaeda.

The situation on the ground is not at all encouraging. Taliban forces recently advanced within 110 kilometers of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and conquered the Buner district. These small forces encountered no significant resistance in their advance and will probably be able to advance further, although at the orders of their commanders, they halted and - surprisingly - withdrew. This may have been a sophisticated tactical move, apparently designed to preserve the forces by refraining from a premature advance that would be liable to place the US in a position where it might have no choice but to intervene with massive force in order to prevent a takeover of key strongholds in Pakistan. The Taliban prefers a coup by internal Pakistani forces that will enable it to promote its goals without suffering unnecessary losses.

The great concern about extremist Islamic parties rising to power in Pakistan relates primarily to the store of nuclear weapons at the government's disposal, estimated at 60-120 nuclear warheads. A danger exists that a change in regime will provide radical elements with access to these nuclear weapons. This is liable to end in a willingness to use these weapons against enemies, or at least to pass on some of the know-how about the production to terrorist factions, such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Such a situation is liable to turn one of the West's biggest nightmares into a reality that radically affects the danger posed by terrorist organizations to countries perceived to be enemies of Islam, especially the US and its closes allies, including Israel.

The main risk here of nuclear weapons use is the possibility that an extremist government will be formed in Pakistan. Only a government can use nuclear weapons, since the country probably has a command and control system that prevents individuals from taking over and using these weapons. The nuclear components are held separately, far from the explosives. According to reports, the weapons, if assembled, can be used only if people from separate authorities activate the secret codes. On the other hand, the possibility also exists that hostile elements will gain control of enough nuclear materials, if not to produce primitive explosive mechanisms, then to frighten and threaten. This is a particularly troubling option, even if it is not fully realized. In this extreme case, it is possible that the US would decide to take over the nuclear parts or destroy them. In any event, it would be a risky move liable to inflame the entire region.

The Taliban's main goal is first to regain control of the government in Afghanistan, or at least control of the rural areas, particularly the mountainous regions adjoining the border with Pakistan. From these regions, the Taliban can expand its access into Pakistan, and obtain a solid territorial basis for any future adventure. A possible victory of the Taliban over Karzai's pro-Western government in Afghanistan, and its return to power there only eight years after forcefully being driven out by the Western coalition headed by the US, is liable to have a decisive influence on escalation of violent subversion by other Muslim armed groups around the world, especially those that regard themselves as belonging to the global Sunni muqawama movement that is challenging pragmatic Arab regimes and Western hegemony.

In addition Afghanistan's becoming once again a stronghold of local and regional radicalism, it is liable as in the past to serve as a training base for terrorists from all over the world. These groups will be able to use Afghan territory as training camps and springboards for terrorist attacks under the auspices of the Taliban regime. This regime, which in the past was unwilling to prevent such activity, is liable to adhere even more strongly to the policy of exporting terrorism, feeling that in the end, despite its temporary setback in 2001, its policy was successful in bringing it victory, and that it has a religious duty to develop this policy further. Obviously the fall of Kabul and the government into the hands of the Afghan Taliban would clearly encourage subversion and instability in Pakistan and inspire Pakistani opposition factions to undermine the existing regime there, even if they do not succeed in actually taking over the entire country. This would create instability in the Indian subcontinent and also lead to terrorist provocations against India.

In the worst case scenario, the world will face a situation in which Afghanistan is in the hands of the Taliban and Pakistan is under an extremist Sunni Islamic regime, while other groups, such as al-Qaeda, operate in these territories and use them as a base for global terrorist operations. Furthermore, Shiite Iran will have a long eastern border with a region controlled by hostile extremist Sunnis in possession of a nuclear weapons arsenal, while the Iranians still have no military nuclear capacity. Iran will face the choice of cooperating with the Americans in neutralizing the danger from the East or expediting its nuclear program in order to deter any possible action against it.

It therefore appears that despite the soothing words of Obama and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen concerning their confidence that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will not fall into irresponsible hands, it is clear that the Pakistani-Afghan theater will continue to provide an important focus of concern for the US and its allies over the risk posed by regime changes in these countries to the stability of the regional and global systems. The weakness of Karzai's regime and its limited control of the country arouse concern that his pro-Western regime is liable to collapse and fall into the Taliban's hands. Instability in Pakistan under Zardari's government, fanned by local political factions, is also liable to worsen, and even lead to his downfall. At this stage, it appears that various power brokers in the Pakistani military-security and political establishment possess strong enough interest and capabilities to prevent the Taliban creation that was nurtured and supported by the ISI, a key Pakistani intelligence agency, from turning on its creator and taking over the government by force.

The alliance of forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan between the Taliban and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda indicates that the ongoing campaign by the international coalition against global terrorism, including the effort to prevent non-conventional weapons from falling into the wrong hands, will long continue to focus on this region.

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