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MAY 4, 2009 11:34AM

Can the Taliban take over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

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Last week, Hilary Clinton expressed concern that the Taliban could lay hands on Pakistan's nuclear weapons, as the country is apparently descending further into chaos. This news item seems to have taken the main stream media (MSM) as well as in the blogsphere like a firestorm. One example is how Jebachman, a reader at Salon, noted that (to paraphrase) this presents a danger surpassing anything the United States has ever faced.

It definitely sounds like serious business, but is it really time to check the best-before dates on the Spam tins in the bomb shelter? Could a few tribal groups collectively known as the Taliban really take over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal? Just how concerned should we be, here? 

One of my good friends was born and raised in Peshawar, which is near the region controlled by the Taliban. He was a journalist in that region for several years before he moved to Canada in the mid-90s. He's now a university professor. He keeps in regular contact with his relatives and former journalism colleagues back in Peshawar as well.

Since I figured that would pretty much make him an expert on the situation, I gave him a call to find out what he thought about the whole thing. Here's what he said:

Imagine if a town of about 5,000 people, none with more than a 4th grade education and no weapons more advanced than AK-47s and a few rocket-propelled grenades were threatening to take over the US Government and its nuclear weapons and impose their morals and values over the entire US population, would anyone take their threat seriously? They might do a bit of damage on their way to Washington, but would they be able to take a single nuclear weapon, let alone the entire arsenal? 

Transpose this scenario to Pakistan, and that is exactly what's happening. The Taliban, who are based in tribal areas in northern Pakistan, have a tight control over their small region. Because the Taliban are based in hard to reach mountains, the Pakistani army can't fight them easily (the US and Canadian forces in Afghanistan face a similar problem). Over the last few years, people from this group have occasionally descended from the mountains to commit suicide bombings (or shootings) in nearby cities to show they mean business. However, since they lack modern weapons and logistical support and have no air power, the Taliban are in no way able to come down from these mountains to take on the Pakistani army head-on in pretty much flat terrain. Which means they have no hope of taking over the country or its nuclear arsenal.

Okay, so maybe the Taliban aren't about to raid Islamabad, you're thinking. But what if some members of the Pakistani military suddenly decide that the Taliban have the right idea and steal a nuclear weapon for them? 

Although it's remotely possible that some soldiers could try this (and I'm emphasizing the word 'try'), most of the highest-ranking officers in the military are educated in the west, with graduate degrees from such places as MIT, Stanford, Oxford and GaTech, among others. They have no interest in sharing power with a rag-tag army whose leadership didn't make it to grade nine. And if you look at the history of Pakistan, it's evident that the military basically runs the country. When they're not happy, they stage a coup d’état and take control of the civilian government, as happened with Musharraf in 1999.

So, what about what Clinton said about the risk that the Taliban could take control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal?

 Glad you asked.

What we're looking at here is basically a threat to scare Republicans (and people like Jebachman), to ensure the Pakistani Government gets funding in order to 'fight' the Taliban. Former President George Bush used the same tactics when he was in power, which worked so well that America invaded Iraq in March of 2003. And I sincerely doubt his administration was the first to use it, either.

Hey! Those are pretty harsh words there, Kanuk. Got any proof? 

As a matter of fact, how about this urgent upcoming bill in Congress designed to provide emergency funds for helping Pakistan? This bill has just been introduced to the floor. Interestingly enough, the Republicans are already in agreement to support it. It seems like Clinton, Obama and the MSM's fear tactics were pretty effective.

But lest you think otherwise, the Pakistani Government plays this game too. Like most governments all over the world, they want large sums of money from the US Government. So the Government of Pakistan has been telling our Government that if they don't get large sums of money, they'll stop fighting the Taliban. And every time they do, our president opens the checkbook and starts a campaign of fear about how dangerous the Taliban are in Pakistan. It's like a feedback loop, with everyone trembling in fear and thinking irrationally (see the discussions on torture).

There you have it. One less thing to worry about. Additional information about the Pakistani’s perspective on this and other issues can be found at my friend’s blog: South Asian perspectives on culture, economics, and politics .

Oher relevant sources about what's really happening in Pakistan: 

Blog by Juan Cole


CHOWK is a platform to publish, discuss and debate writings on a variety of issues that are important to the people of India, Pakistan, and other South Asian countries.

All Things Pakistan

Update (July 28, 2009):

I found this Toronto Star article published on July 19, 2009, which discusses the aftermath of the conflict discussed above. As the title indicates, we still had nothing to worry about:

Taliban go from hero to zero in Pakistan

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I am not as optimistic as you are; Pakistan could well undergo a Thieu like moment in the military fades away under its unwillingness to fight. There are also hundreds of thousands of madrasa students throughout Pakistan who would be a big problem in an implosion scenario.
Maybe the tribal areas can be walled off, but it doesn't look like to me that they are going in that direction, and the Pakistani military is clearly running the risk of Great Power intervention; another round of Pakistani roulette I suppose, but the Indians have grown tired of the game, as have the Americans.
I agree that the Taliban can't beat the Pakistani army head-on. But insurgents never fight head-on. Though the Taliban are not capable of taking Islamabad, they do appear capable of retaking a good part of the rest of Pakistan in a bid to eventually isolate the capital. This would tend to make the national government such in name only. It is an old strategy. It is a long-range strategy. And ultimately it would spell ruin for U.S. hopes for stability and the rule of (western-style) law in Pakistan, even if a stalemate ensues with the Taliban effectively controlling only 50 percent of the country.

Don Rich raises an excellent point above in referencing Pakistani military's ambivalence on the issue of the Taliban.
How many times before in history has a nuclear power experienced a civil war? Zero. This is an unprecedented and highly dangerous situation. (And it is a civil war, as well as an insurgency. If a combatant exercises sovereignty over a significant portion of the country, then its a civil conflict).

Iranian military leaders were western educated as well, before the revolution. And they were far more pro-American than the Pakistani army is. We didn't see that one coming. And we ARE seeing this one as it unfolds.

And do we need to remind ourselves of how untrustworthy the highest ranking Pakistani officials are? A.Q. Khan sold nuclear technology to the worst countries he could. The ISI services have been willing to tolerate islamist radicals as leverage against India. And Zardari wins the award for "least effective leader" on the planet.

Yes, Pakistan uses this as an excuse for milking us for cash. But does that make these problems less true? No, it just makes clear that Pakistan is not as concerned about them as they should be.
My two cents about the comments from Don and Steve:

The Pakistani military is not unwilling to fight. It has lost over 2,000 soldiers in the Pakistan in the last couple of years fighting the Taliban. The question is why should Pakistan military fight the Taliban in the tribal areas where the terrain and local sympathies favour Taliban. This battle has to be fought on a level playing (battle) field where conventional artillery would have an upper hand on Taliban forces bearing small arms.

The military has also been waiting for the political leadership in Pakistan to be unanimous against the threat posed by Taliban. This consensus was reached only in the past month when the political and religious opposition in Pakistan supported the government's initiatives against the Taliban.

The second comment about the Taliban taking over 50% of Pakistan is also dubious at best. Most Pakistanis are Punjabis, followed by Sindhis, and other non-Pushtun ethnicities. Taliban continue to be an ethnic Pushtun force comprising of primary school dropouts exercising control over parts of Pakistan where the State never imposed its writ. You have to wait and see how this battle is fought in the Cantonments before one entertains the doomsday scenario seriously.

Lastly, I was in Peshawar in 1992 when the Taliban forces tried to attack the Shiites. The attack in 1992 did not make the 6 0'clock news in North America. The Pakistani military repulsed Taliban fighters long before they could reach Peshawar. Similar attacks have been occurring in Pakistan for the past six decades. The fact that they are now part of the 6 o'clock news in North America, such events generate unnecessary panic amongst the gullible US citizenry.

The bottom line is that helped by the complicity of the Saudis and fuelled by the anger against NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban militancy has reached new heights as of late. The way out of this mess is to restrict NATO's role to training Afghan forces in the immediate short run, and the return of NATO troops in the not so immediate short run.

Finally, one has to address heads on the Saudi support for Islamic fundamentalists, including the Taliban. Remember, 15 terrorists who attacked on 9/11 were Saudi nationals; not one came from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Those seminaries in Saudi Arabia that motivated the 9/11 terrorists are still busy as ever spewing hatred and avoiding scrutiny by the global media and intelligentsia. I wonder why?

Thanks for the view from your local source. However, I still tend to agree with those who think the probability of Pakistan falling to radical Islamists is non-zero and rising. Not every radical Islamist is Pushtun. The fundamentalist movement is gaining, not losing strength among many Pakistanis.

A popular fundamentalist Islamic revolution composed of nothing more than a few thousand armed militiamen with AK 47s and hundreds of thousands of people in the streets would overwhelm any number of tank formations the government might throw at it, if they even summoned the will to do so. Such a mass uprising could well take over the government and its assets, including nukes.

Is there an ace-in-the-hole strategy involving elite commandos securing the nukes? Maybe. More likely, that's a fantasy and the inevitable response to a radical Islamic takeover of Pakistan would be India launching the first strike. Game over.


I feel very comfortable backing your position, Kanuk. Pakistan is also known as Military, Inc. Zadari appears to be an erratic, overly opportunistic national leader. Remember he was classified at one time as being mentally unstable. In a volatile national situation, it's entirely likely that the Zadari government will eventually be overthrown by a military coup.

And it's true that some of the ISI treats Taliban factions as some kind of cats paw in Afghanistan, where some elements of the military in the past almost treated Afghanistan as some Pakistani colony. And it's almost impossible to ignore the unsavory elements that the Pakistani military supports in Kashmir and against India. Pakistan has to rank as one of the scariest countries in the world by any standard, and the NWFA is more or less totally outside of governmental control.

Nevertheless, you are absolutely correct about the irreconcilable class difference that exist between the ruling military classes and the Taliban. And when you have massive demonstrations in the street for the rule of law for the Supreme Court justices, it becomes highly unlikely that Pakistan would ever fall under Taliban control.
Thank you for everyone’s comments (so far). Everybody made good and valid points. Pakistan is far from being a stable country, on the contrary. However, it is important to point out that the purpose of my post was related specifically to the Taliban and the risk that a nuclear bomb falls into their hands and subsequently in those of Al Qaeda. This is the threat that is currently being used in the media and by the current administration. Thus, on that note, I contacted a friend of mine (afpak above) to give me a perspective about such a scenario, if at all possible. This does not mean that other factors could lead to a Pakistani general, for instance, who suddenly decides to attack their neighbor India with nuclear warheads.

I also encouraged my friend to participate in these discussions for questions or comments where he would be able to provide more accurate answers than I ever could. Furthermore, given my work schedule, I may not be able to respond frequently or for every comment.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts on this important topic.
Perhaps I should clarify my statement about fighting. They seem no longer willing to do it, for exactly the reasons you state, and also it would seem that would make the ethnic fissure problem worse, like if we are about to get Pashtunistan, de facto, then the other groups head for the exits, and it gets real, real ugly.
Thanks for such informed comments. I think it will be important to see what happens in Peshawar in the next few months. Afpak, I don't think there will ever be a level playing field. The Taliban have learned to play it on their terms. If you want to check out my perspective on this in more detail see my recent post at:

Thank you for your good post.
Some years ago I spent some time working in Peshawar.

I don't think that Taliban is near to get the whole power in Pakistan. Clinton's talk about Taliban is meant for the American public to scare them to get more weapons and troops to kill even more people in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Even if Taliban would catch the power they wouldn't probably start fighting first against the United States. They would have much better things to do in their neighborhood. On the other hand of course they would try to kick American troops out of their country, (which I would consider the right thing to do), but that is another thing than to start a war against the whole American warlord community with nuclear weapons.
Great post. This is to be chewed slowly to digest. Yummy.
Thanks for the research. Yes to what Juan Cole says? Yes.
Chew the cud in this good post/comments section. okays.
Chew a spoon of oatmeal with honey and raison 33 X 's.
Eat oatmeal with jade chopsticks. Drip honey on keyboard.
Don and Steve: Thank you for your comments. Steve, I read your post. Indeed, you have a different take on the issue. Others seem to have a less pessimistic view, however. (see the link I provided below)

Hannu: I am glad to see that you agree with our assessment. I hope you enjoyed visiting this region of Pakistan.

Arthur: You’re welcome! I hope you won’t get a stomach ache… ;-)

For everyone, I just noticed this blog post that addresses similar issues as those Afpak and I discussed in the post. The similarities are very intriguing…

The myth of Talibanistan
The link did not seem to have worked. I hope it will work this time around. BTW, it has May 5th as the publication date.

The myth of Talibanistan
Justin: Yes, I understand your views. Thank you. However, with regards to Iran, it is primarily the Mullahs or the religious establishment that spews hatred towards the United States. Unfortunately, they have tight control over the political and education systems among others. According to all my Iranian friends (I have several), there are many more people who are pro-American (or West), especially among the young, than we are led to believe. Interestingly enough, some of these friends are the only Muslims I know who drink alcohol. This can give you a hint about what they think of the religious establishment in Iran. The bottom line is that most Iranians who come to study in the US or Europe have actually no problems with the US government or our lifestyle.
While in Peshawar I was quite busy and working hard to develop wind turbines in a factory. So I didn't have time to visit cultural institutions such as museums there. But I know that the area has got a very long and glorious history. Many invaders such Alexander the Great came there, the religions in the area have been really many sided. Some time the area was Buddhist, some time Judaism had a lot of influence, nowadays it is a Muslim stronghold.

With the factory Muslim engineers I had quite much talk about religions. I've known many Muslims in my life and the people there seem to be quite deeply religious. In reality in my opinion the difference between Islam and Christianity is small. Myself I'm not a member of any religious order. I've read Koran and Bible through already when I was about 12 years old, but I've studied Buddhist literature more than any other religious texts, even stayed in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan for some time. I cannot understand well why some American Christians are afraid of Islam religion's expansion. Christianity and Islam are near each others and nobody seems to know the complete truth of the human life and the salvation. It is a matter to do research.

For Americans Peshawar would be a great place for learning. You don't need there weapons but an open mind to learn about the culture. It is the time to stop killing people there and to stop giving more weapons to the army of Pakistan, but to start investigating how to unite the various people from the mountain areas with the others living on plains. Pakistan has got many big problems and it needs support for developing its culture, not making more wars between its different people.