Pakistan is not just one of nine countries with nuclear weapons, it is also a hotbed of global jihadism, where the military and the intelligence services use terrorist networks to advance their regional goals. And even as Pakistani officials proclaim that their nuclear assets are secure, evidence, including internal Pakistani documents, suggests that they know better.
Having served in senior roles in Afghanistan’s intelligence services, I have good reason to be skeptical about Pakistan’s ability to keep its nuclear weapons safe from extremists.
The international community, working with the United Nations Atomic Energy Agency or the United Nations Security Council, must take action to prevent a global catastrophe before it is too late. Pakistan is believed to have the fifth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, larger than Britain’s. It also has an established history of giving nuclear technology to countries like Iran and North Korea. As the Trump administration begins developing its policies toward Pakistan and toward nuclear nonproliferation, it should make Pakistan a top priority.
Pakistanis with the most knowledge of the country’s nuclear program are among the most worried. On Dec. 16, 2014, the Taliban launched a deadly attack on an army-run school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Afterward, Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission sent an urgent letter to the director general of the Strategic Plans Division, which is responsible for securing Pakistan’s nuclear assets, expressing concern. The Atomic Energy Commission requested that the military devote more resources to ensuring that the personnel with knowledge of the nuclear program are monitored. This letter, which has been kept secret until now, reveals just how concerned some Pakistani officials are — and how worried the rest of the world should be.
The Atomic Energy Commission is not the only group sounding alarms about the role of extremists inside Pakistan. In early 2014, the ministry of interior issued a policy paper called the National Internal Security Policy 2014-2018, a classified document that outlined the government’s security priorities. It warns that Pakistan is home to hundreds of terrorist and extremist groups, and points out that many of them are operational in all four provinces of Pakistan, including in the areas in Punjab near some of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. This document also raises concerns over the growing influence of certain terrorist groups, in particular Lashkar-e-Taiba, inside the Pakistan Army and intelligence agencies, and within the families of senior and midlevel military officers.
Despite all of this, the Pakistani authorities continue to insist in public that their nuclear assets are safe. As a senior official told The Atlantic magazine in 2011, “Of all the things in the world to worry about, the issue you should worry about the least is the safety of our nuclear program.” When Pakistani officials came to Washington for a nuclear security summit last spring, they affirmed in the broadest terms their country’s commitment to nuclear security from “the entire spectrum of threats” — playing down terrorism specifically, or the fact that Pakistan represents a particular threat.
The Pakistanis say they are confident in the Strategic Plans Division’s professionalism. And the division claims to have strong systems in place to screen personnel for integrity, weeding out those who have dangerous political, ethnic or religious affiliations. They also report that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are de-mated, meaning the warheads are separated from their delivery mechanisms. But even if this is true, it doesn’t mean that all nuclear material is safe. There are reports that Pakistan is building tactical nuclear weapons, smaller arms that are easier to use on the battlefield. It is unclear how the Strategic Plans Division intends to secure them.
Instead of asking for help dealing with these vulnerabilities, the Pakistani Army and intelligence community close themselves off. They fear that the United States is trying to seize their nuclear weapons and say that the West refuses to allow a Muslim country to have access to the world’s most powerful weapons, a line often repeated by extremists.
Pakistan should instead be asking for help keeping its nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands. But until that happens, the United Nations Security Council — and the United States, an ally of Pakistan’s — should step in.
First, Pakistan must be forced to stop playing a double game, supporting extremist groups while publicly proclaiming that it is fighting terrorism. Second, the government in Islamabad should welcome the help of the United Nations Atomic Energy Agency in securing nuclear assets. Government agencies inside Pakistan have admitted that the country’s nuclear assets are in danger. The rest of the world should take heed and try to protect them before it’s too late.
Rahmatullah Nabil served as the head of Afghanistan’s national directorate of security from 2010 to 2012 and from 2013 to 2015.