Extremist, Nuclear Pakistan: An Emerging Threat?

March 5, 2003 • Policy Analysis No. 472
By Subodh Atal

Since the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, a wide range of actions has been taken by the Bush administration to neutralize the terrorist infrastructure arrayed against the United States. In addition, the president singled out Iran, North Korea, and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” Iraq has been brought under intense pressure to give up its weapons of mass destruction or face military strikes.

One nation that has been overlooked so far is Pakistan, which the United States has touted as a “frontline ally” in the anti‐​terrorism war. But Pakistan’s cooperation has been grudging and spotty. Thousands of al‐​Qaeda fighters managed to escape into Pakistan, where they have been sheltered and helped to regroup by Pakistani member groups of the International Islamic Front. Sections of the Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies continue to aid al‐​Qaeda and its sister terrorist groups in Pakistan. Many of the gains made during 2001 and 2002 in the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan have been squandered because Pakistan has become al-Qaeda’s new command center.

Even worse, Pakistani nuclear experts are under investigation for links with al‐​Qaeda. There is legitimate concern that President Pervez Musharraf’s regime does not have full control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Pakistan is reported to have shared its nuclear technology with North Korea, and possibly with Myanmar and Saudi Arabia, thus contributing to the problem of nuclear proliferation.

A nation that is penetrated by Islamic radicals and that possesses dozens of nuclear weapons and proliferates them to other dictatorial countries poses a tangible and immediate problem. But U.S. policy toward Pakistan does not reflect that reality. In the absence of pressure from the United States, Pakistan has not found it necessary to take serious action against Islamic extremists or to end its proliferation activities. Other unstable nations are likely to look to Pakistan as a role model that has achieved nuclear status and checkmated the United States into acquiescence. North Korea may be the first nation to follow the Pakistani path.

A reevaluation of U.S. policy toward Pakistan is imperative. Forcing Pakistan to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure within its borders and put a tight lid on its nuclear proliferation activities is more likely to fortify short‐ and long‐​term U.S. national security interests than is an invasion of Iraq. There is also a need for contingency plans to rapidly secure and extract Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in case of a coup by Islamic radicals.

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About the Author
Subodh Atal is an independent foreign affairs analyst based in Washington, D.C.