Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Averting the Worst

As the Pakistani military launched a new offensive against the Taliban in the country’s North-West Frontier Province, officials and former officials in Washington continued to discuss what the American response should be to the heightened conflict. Bruce Riedel offered his views on the situation.

Just before her murder in December 2007 former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said, “I now think Al Qaeda can be marching on Islamabad in two to four years.” Today her prophecy seems all too real.

Al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan, the Taliban, Lashkar e Tayyba, and other extreme jihadists, are becoming increasingly powerful. They are no longer confined to the tribal belt along the Afghan border but have built strong bases of support in the nation’s heartland, the Punjab, and in the major cities. The mayor of Karachi, a mega city of 18 million, tells me the Taliban alliance is now threatening to take over his city, the country’s only major port and NATO’s logistical supply line for the war in Afghanistan. A jihadist state in Pakistan is neither imminent nor inevitable, it may not be likely, but it is a real possibility.

A jihadist Pakistan would be a strategic nightmare for America, south Asia and the world. It would provide al Qaeda and other terrorist groups with the ultimate sanctuary in the worlds’ second largest Muslim state, protected by nuclear weapons, with a global diplomatic presence and Pakistani Diaspora that could be used to support terror. A jihadist takeover would make the NATO mission in Afghanistan increasingly untenable. It would be a direct threat to both Hindu India and Shia Iran, encouraging both to expand and accelerate their own nuclear programs.

Thus it is critical that the United States do what it can now to strengthen the Pakistani moderate center which is resisting the jihadist Frankenstein. Congress should pass the Kerry-Lugar legislation that triples economic aid and the Pentagon’s proposals for increasing counter-insurgency assistance to Pakistan with a minimum of conditionality.

Trying to legislate changes in Pakistani behavior is a recipe for disaster — as the history of U.S.-Pakistan relations demonstrates — now is the time to support Pakistanis who are ready to resist extremism and jihadism.

Read other expert commentary »