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Threat Perception and Risk Inversion

Why Pakistan, Not Iran, Is The Most Pressing Nuclear Threat

By Steve Schippert | March 15, 2007
"In a conversation with this reporter in October 2001, Gen. Gul forecast a future [Pakistani] Islamist nuclear power that would form a greater Islamic state with a fundamentalist Saudi Arabia after the monarchy falls."
--Arnaud de Borchgrave, August 2004

THERE REMAINS an inversion of public discourse and policy direction with regard to two of the most significant threats we face. In particular, the most pressing nuclear threat is widely perceived to be from Iran while the more imminent terrorist threat is believed to be found in Pakistan. While both threats remain very real, few seem to understand that the most imminent nuclear threat is posed by Pakistan--the only current nuclear power considerably within reach of becoming an Islamist-run state aligned with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or other Islamists. Conversely, Iran's still-developing nuclear weapons program deceptively overshadows the significant state-sponsored international terrorism emanating from Tehran. This, while Pakistan's increasingly embattled--and internally challenged--President Pervez Musharraf stands as the primary buffer between Islamist forces of the ISI, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda taking ownership of Pakistan's significant nuclear arsenal of 30 to 50 warheads.

Iran has a nearly 30-year track record of state-sponsorship of terrorism, complete with funded, supplied, and supported acts of terror and terrorists--Shi'a and Sunni alike--throughout the region and the world. Yet, though it has produced neither weapons-grade fissile material nor a viable nuclear weapon, Iran is considered by many the world's most urgent nuclear threat, rather than being addressed as the international terror sponsor that it is.

Likewise, with the presence of expanding safe-havens for the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other aligned terrorist organizations, Pakistan is primarily considered a state from which terrorists can prepare and launch future terror attacks. Pakistan certainly has elements which pose a threat of future (and current) acts of terror. However, the unsettling potential convergence of Pervez Musharraf and an assassin's bullet or bomb is all that separates a developed nuclear arsenal from these developed international terrorist networks. Should this happen to a steadily weakening Musharraf, it could give rise to the envisioned Islamist-run power in place of the current Islamic State of Pakistan, perhaps led by former ISI chief and Osama bin Laden friend, Hamid Gul.

While the terrorist threat from within Pakistan is real and present--more real and present than any nuclear threat from present day Iran--it pales in comparison to the nature of the imminent threat Pakistan's nuclear arsenal poses, with its positive control in increasing doubt.

Troubling Developments: Musharraf Cedes His Enemies' Gains

IT WAS RECENTLY REVEALED that a Bajour peace deal is imminent, modeled after the Miramshah Agreement that effectively handed the neighboring Pakistani territory of FATA's North Waziristan agency over to the Taliban. This same Bajour agreement was derailed last year by a strike on a Bajour madrassa, reportedly carried out by the Pakistani military.

Demonstrating his open alignment with the Islamists within Pakistan, Hamid Gul has effectively brought suit against the Pakistani government, seeking the protection of Bajour tribal citizens against attacks from Coalition and Pakistani troops. In the suit, which was received well by the Supreme Court judges, Gul reportedly argued that "many tribal citizens (in the Bajour Agency) are being killed daily, due to firing of Allied troops and Pakistani security forces, which was a blatant violation of article 9 of the constitution." Gul asserts that Pakistani forces must be blocked from the pursuit of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or anyone aiding these groups.

Outside the Supreme Court, counterterrorism justices in Pakistan receive harsh treatment and are under threat of attack from Pakistani Islamists. One judge who primarily hears terrorism cases survived a suicide bombing attack on March 1st in the central Pakistani city of Multan. The judge was injured but survived; three Pakistani police officers providing his security were reportedly killed.

GUL'S SUPPORT of the Taliban has been longstanding and his admiration for bin Laden open. The 9/11 Commission Report stated that after the August 1998 cruise missile strike that "missed bin Laden by a few hours," Washington officials "speculated that one or another Pakistani official might have sent a warning to the Taliban or bin Laden." The Christian Science Monitor was more specific, reporting that in the Commission's meetings "[e]vidence emerged" that "former Pakistani intelligence chief, Hamid Gul, forewarned bin Laden of the 1998 missile strikes so that he was able to escape." Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gul said that "God will destroy the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and wherever it will try to go from there." Calling U.S. actions a "war against Muslims," he added, "Let's destroy America wherever its troops are trapped." Gul, known as the "Godfather of the Taliban" for his role in their creation and support while head of the ISI from 1987 to 1989, is also said to be friends with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

When Gul's actions are combined with his past statements, it is clear he is seeking the rise of his envisioned "Islamist nuclear power that would form a greater Islamic state with a fundamentalist Saudi Arabia," as he described it to Arnaud de Borchgrave in 2001.

Should Musharraf agree, as expected, to a Bajour treaty with tribal leaders (who are acting at the behest of the Taliban), it would likely be followed by additional acts of withdrawal, just as South Waziristan and North Waziristan have proven to be but the tip of the knife. Musharraf has said that there are more deals to come. But the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance has effectively controlled regions of Pakistan with or without state-approved tribal agreements.

Such moves by Musharraf are likely attempts to stem the flood of opposition and unrest within his government. In real terms, concessions may buy him and his military more time before a confrontation with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Or they may simply provide the enemy with the time and resources needed to finish off Musharraf's regime. Either way, Musharraf is likely to gain a few months' respite from attacks. Ultimately, his enemies will demand more of what the Pakistani president has already demonstrated a willingness to surrender.

Troubling Unknowns: Nuclear Weapons in Pakistan

Pakistan's nuclear weapons and its continuing nuclear program were created and fostered by A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist responsible for establishing a global network used for proliferating nuclear technology and equipment throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, including the budding Iranian nuclear program. As detailed by Gordon Corera in his book, Shopping for Bombs, from North Korea to Libya and from Iran to South Africa, Khan's fingerprints and handiwork are virtually everywhere. And while Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, the common thread among Khan's international clients is not measured in kilowatt-hours, but rather by the presence of a nuclear weapons program.

The nuclear arsenal that Khan in large part engineered for Pakistan is believed to range from 30 to 50 warheads. That the quantity is unknown gives rise to a greater concern: An acknowledgment that if the United States does not know how many nuclear weapons are at risk of terrorist possession, it cannot possibly know where each of them is stored. It is unreasonable to assume or expect that Musharraf or anyone within the Pakistani government would share with the United States the locations of its nuclear arsenal. Such matters are closely guarded state secrets, especially when the rival neighboring Indian state is an equally secretive nuclear competitor.

If American intelligence does not know where each Pakistani nuclear weapon is located, this means that an immediate physical solution--the in-place destruction of Pakistan's distributed weapons--to the nuclear threat Pakistani weapons would pose after a fall of Musharraf is extremely unlikely. It has been reported that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are stored un-assembled and/or are not yet installed onto prospective missile delivery systems. This matters little if an initial elimination strike leaves warheads intact.

Troubling Support: 'Mysterious' Source of New Taliban Confidence

ON THE HEELS of Vice President Cheney's visit to Islamabad, developments indicate a shift in thinking for both al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts. Cheney's visit was said to be for the purposes of sending a stern message to Musharraf about doing more to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban within Pakistan's borders. The Taliban sent a message of their own when a suicide bomber was dispatched to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan while the Vice President was in residence.

The Taliban seem to be riding a wave of confidence. As Syed Saleem Shahzad reports, "Pakistan" has made a deal with the Taliban to provide it state-resource support for the Taliban's spring offensive into Afghanistan. Notably, Shahzad stops short of describing the Taliban's purported new sponsorship as any more specific than "Pakistan." This certainly should not be interpreted by Western readers to signify President Musharraf or members of the Pakistani government loyal to him. If Shahzad's report is accurate, however, then "Pakistan" might mean Hamid Gul and his personal network of ISI-centric Islamists. As reported, the deal is between "Pakistan" and the one-legged Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's most capable military commander who is revered among the Taliban only second to their one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar.

A further sign of resurgent Taliban confidence is the sudden public reemergence of Mullah Omar. Until now, the top Taliban leader has kept to the shadows in order to evade the American manhunt which has been underway since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Now, however, he is speaking and appearing publicly, rallying his followers for the spring offensive that he and Dadullah--and "Pakistan"--believe will finally bring them Kandahar, Kabul, and victory.

Troubling Dispersal: al-Qaeda Terrorists Leaving Pakistan

THERE ARE ALSO INDICATIONS that the nomadic nature of the Sunni Arab al-Qaeda is resurfacing. With the newly surging Taliban confidence, al-Qaeda appears to be preparing for relocation to the Middle East and Africa. There have always been differences between the predominantly native Pashtun Taliban and largely Arab al-Qaeda, including strategic, as well as ideological and religious, differences. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance, insofar as cohabitating is concerned, may well have "run its [productive, symbiotic] course" over the past five years, as Shahzad's source describes.

The migration of al-Qaeda from Pakistan is not new. In the latter months of 2006, it was reported that the al-Qaeda leadership sent hundreds of its terrorists from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region back to their home countries throughout the Middle East. Said al-Qaeda expert Rohan Gunaratna in December 2006, "We have seen that several hundred, perhaps five to six hundred al-Qaeda members who were located on the Afghan-Pakistan border, have now left." He added at the time that there was a "a shift in al-Qaeda's thinking, in strategy."

While al-Qaeda's foot-soldiers may be in exodus from Pakistan, the top echelon of al-Qaeda leadership most likely is not. There remains no safer place for bin Laden and Zawahiri to operate and direct than in the wild west tribal areas within Pakistan. There is certainly no sign of that situation changing through sustained Pakistani military action.

The most significant theater to watch is the exporting of al-Qaeda terrorists from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden and Zawahiri have long sought to oust the "apostate" ruling monarchy and rid the Peninsula of the infidels. To wit, three French nationals were shot to death near Medina on February 26. Saudi Arabia named al-Qaeda as the responsible group for the attacks. al-Qaeda has recently returned to publishing Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad) after months of silence. The latest issue, released in February, calls for attacks on "petroleum interests in all regions that the United States benefits from, and not only in the Middle East."

Troubling Realities: Iranian Terrorism And Pakistani Nuclear Weapons

The United States and the West should begin to view the precarious nature of the security of Pakistan's existing nuclear arsenal as the principle nuclear threat. While Iran's nuclear aims paired with the nature of the mullah regime are of great concern, that threat is undeveloped and could, at least in theory, be resolved before it becomes imminent. However, the end of Musharraf's relatively trustworthy stewardship of nuclear weapons in the midst of a hornet's nest of terrorist activity should be considered a direct concern and a growing, if not imminent, threat.

Ironically, it is the Iranian regime's continued campaign of state-sponsored international terrorism which poses the greatest threat from that country today. Their acts of terrorism for nearly 30 years continue today without consequence. Consider: the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine Barracks in Lebanon; the bombing of the Jewish community center in Argentina; Iranian collusion with al-Qaeda in Sudan during the 1990s; the Khobar Towers bombing against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia; and the evidence of Iranian Qods Force operators and EFP's and Steyr sniper rifles in Iraq killing U.S. and British soldiers. Iran has a terrorist track record that the United States seems reluctant to address.

Iran's primary threat today is clearly state-sponsored terrorism--which is why the prospect of their gaining nuclear weapons is so menacing.

But unlike Pakistan, Iran does not have nuclear weapons today. But if the end goal of Islamist terrorists is to obtain a nuclear weapon, it seems as though they have a better chance of doing so by taking over a nuclear-capable Pakistan, rather than making an Islamist Iran nuclear-capable.

In Iran the regime must change and in Pakistan the regime must stay, no matter how messy the former or how imperfect the latter. With the limited national security resources available to the United States, it is imperative that we properly focus those resources toward these aims.

[Threat Perception and Risk Inversion is reprinted courtesy The Weekly Standard]