The Debate

Pakistan’s Coziness With Non-State Actors Represents the Single Greatest Global Nuclear Security Threat

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The Debate

Pakistan’s Coziness With Non-State Actors Represents the Single Greatest Global Nuclear Security Threat

Pakistan’s willingness to use unpredictable and radical non-state actors puts its nuclear arsenal at risk.

Pakistan’s Coziness With Non-State Actors Represents the Single Greatest Global Nuclear Security Threat
Credit: Nicola Galiero /

Cold war history is a cautious testament to the deterrent capabilities of nuclear weapons. Times have changed, however. Today, in South Asia, Pakistan’s strategic manipulation of its nuclear capability to conduct a proxy war with India is pushing the region towards a catastrophic scenario.

Simply put, Pakistan is pushing the boundaries of what it can get away with. A country embodying contradictions since it came to existence last century, Pakistan has given more and more cause for worry over the years, particularly since 2007. As world leaders gather in Washington, DC, for the Nuclear Security Summit, they would do well to study the shortcomings of this nuclear U.S. ally. At the heart of the problem is not Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, but its treacherous, self-destructive and parochial, alliance with extremist elements, whose machinations are inevitably corrosive to the country’s fragile democracy.

Pakistan’s perennial non-unitary behavior, as political scientist and nuclear strategy expert George Perkovich puts it, creates ambiguity in its strategic intentions for its nuclear-armed rival, India. The Islamic state’s use of extremist militants against India with little or no state control over them, he rightly warns, creates a deadly sense of ambiguity in the country’s strategic intentions.

The longstanding debate over why Washington should be alarmed by a nuclear ally’s strategy of fostering terrorism saw a decisive shift in the aftermath of Peshawar school attack. As the coffins of more than 130 uniformed children killed by the Taliban in December 2014 rolled out, the mood changed in Pakistan. There were expectations that the incident would shake the conscience of those who had hand-reared the gun-toting militants and prompt a change in the country’s decades-old policy of using terror networks as an instrument of foreign policy. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went as far as saying that the state would not make any distinction between good and bad Taliban any more, in what was seen by some as a self-incriminating proclamation, conceding the state’s collusion with militant outfits.

But 15 months since the atrocities at Peshawar, little appears to have changed fundamentally in Pakistan’s approach to dealing with its home-grown militant groups, many of whom continue to function autonomously. Following the Peshawar massacre the pressure on Islamabad to ‘do something’ was enormous. Expectedly, it talked the talk. But what followed only confirmed that it was going to be no more than cosmetic posturing.

After getting several political parties to agree on a twenty-point national action plan on counter-terrorism, the Sharif government swiftly swung into action. In addition to arresting thousands, it lifted a six-year old moratorium on death penalty, and executed 319 people in less than a year. Since then, rather unsurprisingly, it has emerged only 2 percent of those arrested had any connection with militant groups. Meanwhile, a majority of those executed had nothing to do with terrorist activities.

Even though the number of terror attacks on Pakistani soil has come down over the past year, giving a facade of success on the ground, the progress is largely hollow. What has been conspicuously lacking in the counter-terrorism action plan is Pakistan’s will to dismantle its jihadi industrial complex that incorporates several terrorist networks. Since 2000, despite international condemnation, nearly all jihadist militant groups based in Pakistan are still flourishing and openly recruiting with impunity.

For example, despite a $10 million bounty on his head, Hafez Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—the group that masterminded and executed the 2008 Mumbai attack—comfortably runs another well-oiled propaganda group, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), which has a network of 300 educational centres, all in the guise of a religious charity. Saeed’s close aide, who was on trial for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was released from jail last year.

LeT and similar groups highlight where the fears over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal lie. For it’s not so much the activities of these jihadist groups as their potential far-reaching access into the security apparatus that causes severe discomfort. U.S. scholar John Mueller has made a compelling argument debunking fears of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of even the most steadfast and single-minded terrorist groups or other non-state actors. Even if they did, he argued, the rogue group would be hard pressed to furtively acquire the technical know-how for a successful launch or detonation. He, however, did not account for a range of complexities uniquely besetting a country like Pakistan.

With three military coups since independence, Pakistan’s military presents a unique mix of dangers and risks. United in their target but disunited in their techniques, the myriad actors—the army, the civilian government, the Inter-Services Intelligence, and militant groups—running this deeply troubled country are often difficult to tell apart and blur together.

Out of this mix, however, Islamist groups now hold the greatest sway over the masses. This is particularly worrisome in the wake of the current global climate of hysteria whipped by the likes of the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and Al Shabab. Islamic fundamentalists’ appeal and grasp over the masses is dangerously far reaching and only growing deeper. Earlier this month, the huge turnout for the funeral procession of the police guard who killed the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, for criticizing blasphemy law reflects widespread support for extremist views in the country.

Moreover, consider LeT—arguably the largest jihadi group in South Asia, with a base of several thousand fighters, many of whom are well-educated, debunking the myth that extremism is the consequence of poverty and ignorance. LeT’s largest jihadist cohort comes from the Punjab region, which is also the largest recruiting ground for the Pakistani army. More alarmingly though is the kinship many fighters have with those in the army, national institutions, and political elite, as revealed by several independent studies. Shockingly, one militant’s obituary went as far as claiming a close familial relationship with a director of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission.

The smouldering antipathy towards the West in general and India in particular is not limited to the radicals alone. Evidence of deep-seated radicalization in the Pakistani army’s middle and lower ranks, sections of whom collaborate with the ISI to train and handle militant groups, has been mounting for years. This radicalization is the result of a deep-running long-term resentment against their own government’s alliance with the United States during its war on terror, which over the years has forced them to turn on the militant groups they themselves nurtured over three decades and with whom they share common religious ideologies.

The real danger, thus, lies in Pakistan’s refusal to acknowledge its own deep-seated malaise. Just days before the Nuclear Security Summit, Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Sharif’s advisor on foreign affairs, remains adamant on branding India as a bigger danger to Pakistan’s security than home-grown terrorism. There are no indications that suggest Pakistan’s willingness in recalibrating this deadly calculus in the region either. Islamabad’s steadfast refusal to reduce the number of its nuclear warheads following the Pakistan-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Washington earlier this month only strengthens the supposition that the country’s military cannot separate its institutional interests from its broader security policy towards India and Afghanistan.

Pakistan must realize that similar to any fraternity, the exclusive nuclear weapon states club expects its members to abide by certain conditions. The ability of these states to demonstrate a state monopoly over the deployment of physical force and restricting the use of their nuclear endowments to deterrence purposes are among the most important conditions in the clique’s unwritten rulebook. Pakistan’s use of non-state actors in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives and willingness to ‘use’ nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict may not revoke the country’s membership in this club, but its administrators reserve the right to introduce new stringent rules for its members.

The author is a UK-based South Asia expert.