Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the doomsday scenario

July 23, 2009

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the possibility in April of Islamist militants taking over Pakistan and its nuclear weapons, her words were dismissed as alarmist – and perhaps deliberately so as a way of putting pressure on Islamabad to act.

The problem with Pakistan is that it is almost impossible to come up with a view that is not either alarmist or complacent. It is such a complex country that nobody can agree a frame of reference for assessing the risk. It is the base for a bewildering array of militants including Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda and anti-India groups, yet also has a powerful and professional army which would be expected to defend to the last its Punjab heartland and nuclear weapons against a jihadi takeover.  Its potent mix of poverty and Islamist sympathies among a significant section of the population make it ripe for revolution, yet it also has a strong and secular-minded civil society which was willing to go out into the streets earlier this year to demand an independent judiciary.

You can assess the risk in Pakistan by looking at the rate of decline in stability there, and that was faster than anyone expected over the past year or so until a military offensive against the Taliban in Swat  which began in April halted the slide.

Or you can look at the worst case scenario, of Islamist militants taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan, and decide that even if that outcome is unlikely, the potential dangers arising from it are so great as to put Pakistani stability at the top of global risks.

In an essay in the National Interest, Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer who led a review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan for President Barack Obama, lays out the implications of that worst case scenario.

“A jihadist Pakistan would be the most serious threat to the United States since the end of the Cold War.  Aligned with al-Qaeda and armed with nuclear weapons, the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan would be a nightmare. U.S. options for dealing with it would all be bad,” he writes.

And if the United States were to try to invade “the Pakistanis would, of course, use their nuclear weapons to defend themselves. While they do not have delivery systems capable of reaching America, they could certainly destroy cities and bases in Afghanistan, India, the Gulf states and, if smuggled out ahead of time by terrorists, perhaps the United States. A victory in such a conflict would be Pyrrhic indeed.

“Of course, the hardest problem would be the day after. What would we do with a country twice the size of California with enormous poverty, almost 50 percent illiteracy and intense popular hatred for all that we stand for after we have fought a nuclear war to occupy it?”

Riedel’s essay, titled “Armageddon in Islamabad” goes some way to answering the oft-asked question of why western troops are fighting in Afghanistan when al Qaeda and its allies are believed to be based in Pakistan. It also helps explain why the United States is so keen to see a peace deal with India that might help stabilise the country.

“A jihadist, nuclear-armed Pakistan is a scenario we need to avoid at all costs,” he says. That means working with the Pakistan we have today to try to improve its spotty record on terrorism and proliferation. There is good reason for pessimism. Working with the existing order in Pakistan may not succeed. But there is every reason to try, given the horrors of the alternative.”

Do read it in conjunction with this article in the CTC Sentinel (pdf), in which Shaun Gregory, a professor at Britain’s Bradford University, assesses the risk of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants. The nuclear weapons, he argues, are well guarded by the Pakistan Army against the internal threat of a seizure by Islamist militants. But this also means that they could not be spirited out of the country by a third party, or destroyed, in the event of a state collapse.


Umair,Please don’t be a hypocrite. What about your:-Pakistan nukes-Pakistan F-16s-Pakistan 170 million strong population-Pakistan forcesNone of the above are helping you against the Taliban nor your country’s economic failings.

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive

@Pakistan is not responsible for terrorist attacks elsewhere”-posted by Umair-Well then consider that Kashmir has been solved.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Boy does the West love scary dreams or what. No Pakistani is going to allow any foreigner to grab our nukes no matter what, so why all this talk of “securing” or “evacuating” or “falling into terrorist hands?”. Pakistani dont give a damn.


Rajeev”Well then consider that Kashmir has been solved.”-Rajeev,not quite yet, Kashmir is an outstanding dispute and scores will be settled. Kargil brought India to negotiaitng table, its upto you if you want to solve it on table or the battlefield. But Pakistan needs a solution of Kashmir.

Posted by Umair | Report as abusive

Umair Wrote:”Kargil brought India to negotiaitng table, its upto you if you want to solve it on table or the battlefield. But Pakistan needs a solution of Kashmir.”Keep on telling lies and we will bust em right here, till you lose all of your credibility or gain some of the reality.India and Pakistan were already speaking on Kashmir, under AB Vajpayee’s Govt, you know we resumed the bus service and Kashmir trade channels, even allowed your actors and singers to make some money from bollywood.Coming back to Kargil, How did Kargil (a battle you lost) bring them to negotiation table, when they were already at it. Would you enlighten us ?India was ALREADY negotiating it on TABLE while Mushy bring the WAR. Its PAKISTAN who don’t want a solution of Kashmir, because if Kashmir drama is over, how will Pakistan Army eat up country’s resources.You guys even did not own the Kargil earlier. Starting a War and disowning it is the MOST LOWLY THING a General can do. You refused to accept dead bodies of your soldiers cowardly during that war and Now you are bragging that Kargil brought us on Negotiation table.

Posted by singh | Report as abusive

@Rajeev“Well then consider that Kashmir has been solved.”posted by rajeev-Rajeev,not quite yet, Kashmir is an outstanding dispute and scores will be settled. Kargil brought India to negotiaitng table, its upto you if you want to solve it on table or the battlefield. But Pakistan needs a solution of Kashmir.- Posted by UmairUmair: you did not get my message. you said “Pakistan is not responsible for terrorist attacks elsewhere”. Umair, Pakistan is a terrorist-sponsoring country.Period. There is no polite way for me to say it. Well if not, then what’s the problem. What did India delink from peace process?–terrorism. So you are conveniently repeating Musharafs’s statement “Kargil brought India to negotiating table”–That guy is guilt-ridden general who is making desperate attempts to earn brownie points by misleading Pakistanis through these achievemnets. You are in mess precisely because of him–he did not have the spine to say no to WOT. Here are the facts–India-Pakistan were happily on the negotiating table and then Musharaf did Kargil. He can feed this stuff to you guys alright, but do not serve to anyone else. Only potential value of Kargil war was to disrupt the already going on peace talks. Look at the chronology and then make statements. Rest, why don;t you use little restraint in shouting empty statements of bravado. They have comical value to me to any Indian to say the least! and I am not getting into this old off track discussion from you–I had that in detail in the past. I have my quota of the jokes for the day. Wars-overt or covert-never significantly harmed India. And pause to look at the damage it did to pakistan. Overt created B-desh, covert put you in this trouble. and now the angle of terrorists from Punjab/Pakistan is showing up. The only thing that can save Pakistan from this is to kill all the jihadi leaders in multiple strikes. It is not if it when that terrorists will start working in Punjab like in SWAT. The beginning is there from the planned killing of Christians.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Vajpayee and his govt never negotiated over Kashmir, they only held talks with Pakistan. Kargil brought the Indians to the Kashmir table with the aim of resolving the dispute.@Daniel HarrisSix months ago, folks like you were claiming that Pakistan will implode in six months and be taken over by Taliban. Time for you to eat crow.


Aamir Ali,The rest of the world will keep in turning and Pakistan will keep on begging. Your country is is being held back from the brink of bankruptcy by US aid, IMF loans and Saudi oil payment defferments. It is the US and the IMF that decides how your country’s economy is run. Keep begging for relief from the terrorism YOU created that is eating you up.

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive

Myra,Any future financial aid should be tied to transparent and open denuclearization and demilitarization from Pakistan, under the IAEA and international monitors.In return, India should give security guarantees, that it will not attack Pakistan unprovoked, except in retaliatory fashion only.This will keep Pakistan honest and allow it to focus its energies on productive, non-military and non-jihadi endeavors.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

@BulletfishUS aid is voluntary and IMF loans are small. Pakistan can survive without both but if folks are willing to help then why not ? Pakistan certainly deserves a few dollars as opposed to bailouts in the hundreds of billions for insurance companies and banks.Getting back to topic, this doomsday scenario makes for entertaining reading and even a good Bollywood film, but is very unrealistic. Nukes are not grenades to be stolen in some raid and then used the next day.


@Getting back to topic, this doomsday scenario makes for entertaining reading and even a good Bollywood film, but is very unrealistic. Nukes are not grenades to be stolen in some raid and then used the next day.- Posted by Aamir AliDear Aamir Ali: I agree it is etertaining but only until one does get vaporized by the heat of the nuclear bomb. Actually nukes can be used vey much like grenades, if you ever heard about the dirty bomb—No nuclear warhead, no missile, no sophisticated technology needed. Suicide bombers will kill each other for the honor of using Dirtybomb instead of regular bomb. Now all that is needed is committed terrorists, terrorist sympathizers in the Nuclear facilities and the right (wrong) kind of political atmosphere for them to collaborate. Not a fictional stuff; more probable than knocking down WTC–who thought about that.@US aid is voluntary and IMF loans are small. Pakistan can survive without both but if folks are willing to help then why not ?—say thanks for the aid atleast. you will collapse without aid. Foreign aid, like a drug, dictates your survival and the bad news is you are addicted to it and take it for granted and feel no shame in asking. you guys call USA imperialist but the way you ask money, you yourself act like another state of USA. Once the aid is completely stopped, Pakistan will become a jungle and you guys will kill each other for self survival. China gives money where money grows, not where it goes in black hole–so do not count on them. Alternative is not so easy for you which is to grow up and be self reliant. My wish on Pakistan’s independence day is stable Pakistan, but only if that does not hurt India. Feels bad to say that since India is 1 day younger than Pakistan.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

PM Gilani calls for urgent US aid for IDPs without strings ct/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakist an/09-gilani-calls-for-aid-without-strin gs–szh-09PM Gilani urges U.S. to write-off debt fghanistan-Pakistan/idUSTRE5543JX2009060 5Pakistan Air Force will induct four Chinese midair refuellers, four Chinese AWACS, 250 Chinerse JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft soon 82.htmNew Pakistani Govt Motto: “US feeds us proudly, We feed Chinese Proudly”

Posted by andy | Report as abusive

This is a mind opening post. De-nuclearisation of both India and Pakistan is a must. If Islamist are a problem in Pakistan. The Bajrang Dal(RSS, Shivsena and other extreme right wing Hindu groups) are a serious threat to the stability of the world. These groups possess the same evil Al-Qaeda has. They are evil to the core of their beliefs, religion and principles. These are the guys who killed Gandhi. See if they are not going to leave Gandhi do you think they will let the world pass. Another time the BJP led right wing groups comes to power in India the Indian economy will be in a downturn and a destabilization of the world is the only way Indian economy can be brought up. It is simple to understand… blow up a small nuke in New York, business move to Mumbai and Bangalore. Think hard to understand the evil we are appeasing in India.


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