The Scariest Place on Earth

Ready for a pop quiz? Name the country with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, now totaling over 100 weapons. Israel? Guess again. North Korea? Nope. Ok, here’s a disturbing hint. The country’s chronically unstable national government has been toppled several times by military coup while ethnic and religious strife generates frequent terrorist violence. Give up? Here’s another alarming clue. This country’s national intelligence service is filled with officers sympathetic to indigenous terrorist groups. In short, you have a virtual failed state with a nuclear arsenal, posing a clear and pronounced risk that terrorists could steal a nuclear warhead or enough radioactive material to build a dirty bomb. And to make matters worse, this nation has been at war with its neighbor, another country with nuclear weapons, over territory with no strategic value.

Care to hazard an educated guess? Well, how about another clue? Osama Bin Laden lived in this country for several years and many American officials believe members of its military and intelligence establishment knew his whereabouts while we engaged in a worldwide manhunt to track him down. Bin Laden resided within spitting distance from this country’s most prestigious military academy. Did I forget to mention that this nation, a major recipient of American foreign aid, is considered an important ally? No, this is not a fictional country taken from the plot of a B-grade thriller; it is the one known as Pakistan.

During America’s military effort to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and to destroy Al Qaeda’s infrastructure, the former found refuge in a region of Pakistan where power resides in the hands of local warlords and the national government has limited authority. The war against American troops was directed from Pakistan, whose government resisted taking decisive military action against the Taliban because its intelligence service believed they were useful to prevent India from developing a sphere of influence in Afghanistan. One must assume that under other circumstances, the US would have taken the fight to Pakistan, but its nuclear arsenal prevented that.

Even as a domestic Taliban movement terrorized Pakistan, the military and the notorious ISI, its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, remained reluctant to confront the militants. We must remember that the Taliban were educated in religious schools or madrassas in Pakistan, established by its leader Zia-al Huq to create anti-communist cadre to defeat the pro-Soviet Afghan government in the late 1970’s. The mujhadeen fighters who resisted the Soviet puppet regime went on to establish the Taliban.

The Pakistani military and intelligence agencies have played a dangerous double game, currying American favor to secure advanced weapons and much needed aid while sheltering and/or abetting the Taliban and Al Qaeda both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The response to the murder of Osama Bin Laden was revealing. Initially, the Pakistani government congratulated the U.S. before it condemned the attack on Bin Laden’s compound as a violation of its sovereignty. Afterwards, the Pakistani Taliban unleashed a retaliatory attack against American forces with the apparent tacit approval of the Pakistani military and intelligence community.

There is evidence Pakistan provided vital technical expertise to enable nuclear programs in both North Korea and Iran. Apparently, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb was involved. Yet, the Pakistani government placed him under house arrest and refused to allow Americans to question him. Presumably, officials feared he would reveal the extent of governmental involvement in the export of nuclear technology around the world.

Conservatives condemn Obama for not doing enough to cripple or terminate Iran’s nuclear program. It is a supreme irony or hypocrisy that none of these critics recall how George H.W. Bush turned a blind eye towards Pakistan when it successfully developed and tested a nuclear weapon that made the world much more unstable and dangerous.

While Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, they are closely followed by India, whose total supply of weapons is roughly the same. There is a dangerous nuclear arms race on the subcontinent between countries whose armies have clashed more than once over Kashmir and whose relationship remains more volatile than that between the US and the USSR during the height of the cold war. A major foreign policy objective for any American president, indeed for the entire world, should involve nuclear disarmament talks in South Asia. In the meantime, India is a stable democracy, despite its own alarming sectarian violence, while Pakistan remains a chronically unstable nation with a large and growing nuclear stockpile. It is a nightmare waiting to happen and the scariest place on earth.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

6 thoughts on “The Scariest Place on Earth”

  1. Good to talk with you last night Neal. I read the article on Pakistan with particular interest. While I agree with some of what you are saying I beg to differ on a couple of points.
    One, I think it is a mischaracterization to say that “This country’s national intelligence service is filled with officers sympathetic to indigenous terrorist groups”. Don’t forget that one terrorist group (albeit Afghans and Chechens) attacked and heinously killed 149 people including 132 children attending a school associated with the militaryIn Peshawar in 2014 and thereafter the Pakistanis intensified their crackdown on” indigenous” terrorist groups. n June 2014, a joint military offensive was conducted by the Pakistan Armed Forces against various groups in North Waziristan which has been the site of a wave of violence. The military offensive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, was launched in the wake of the 8 June attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, for which the TTP claimed responsibility. It is part of the ongoing war in North-West Pakistan in which more than 2,100 have been killed so far,[21] and, according to the Army, almost 90% of North Waziristan has been cleared. While I would agree that the Pakistanis have tolerated and maybe even assisted some groups in Afghanistan to counter Indian influence and even as a counter to some of what the US and other Western powers are doing that is destabilizing the region, i doubt that they are actively encouraging terrorists who are in fact doing the most damage not to Americans but in fact to Pakistani citizens.
    Secondly the article makes it sound like Pakistan is a duplicitous ally of the US undermining our common interests. I think it is much more nuanced in that there is a lot of enmity towards the US government in Pakistan for very valid reasons. We give their military money forcing them to be in the fight against terrorism while stirring up that terrorism that has been devastating to their own people. As a result they cannot be seen as 100% backing the US position.
    An interesting set of circumstances to be sure. In my recent (2017) visit to Pakistan I learned a lot from childhood friends who are now at the top levels of the Pakistani government, army and security forces. They are all intelligent, knowledgeable men most of whom have sent their children to the US for education and who also love America and its people but are of two minds about the US government policies towards Pakistan. Giving money for military uses with strings attached (now rescinded) while creating messes that Pakistan is left to clean up is not a way to develop strong alliances and friendships.
    I am not saying Pakistan is blameless as they are in fact unstable, have lots of internal divisions and sectarian strife (hmm.. I wonder what other country that sounds like having just watched the Cohen hearings), are dominated by a manipulative military industrial complex (once again familiar) and have a totally pathalogical relationship with India.
    I look forward to visiting again in 2021 for my 50th class reunion in Lahore. I was there for 3 1/2 years in a Pakistani (Catholic) grade school with a mix of Catholic and Muslim Pakistanis.
    For further discussion!

  2. I contacted knowledgeable friends in Pakistan about your article and particularly the issue of Osama Bin Laden and the fact he was living near a Pakistani military base. I got the following response noting among other things an interesting parallel with Mullah Omar the head of the Taliban found to have lived near US bases for years in Afghanistan.
    “First consider Taliban. For a long time the western media has been stating that Taliban leadership was housed in Pakistan. Now the book that was published by a French journalist has clearly documented his living less than 500 m from an American base in southern Afghanistan. There are Taliban based in Pakistan that have been operating against Pakistan state, and we have bombings and other activities attributed to them.

    Al Qaeda is primarily Arabs that fought the USSR. Post American WOT, Pakistan leadership that was using “contractors “ to disturb in Kashmir, rolled back the program. These groups evolved into hired guns targeting and fanning sectarian conflict in Pakistan. This objective converged with AQ interests, thus was being funded by private KSA citizens. Once that funding dried up, peace came in Pakistan as well, relatively speaking.

    It’s facile to blame Pakistan for the disaster in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to look after threats on Indian and Iran borders. These threats are there because of bad state policy, on Pakistan’ part.

    American decision to forego diplomacy in favour of muscular DOD may be one of the reasons the alliance has been strained”

    1. Lewis: Thank you so much for your reply. I appreciated hearing your thoughts as well as those of your friends in Pakistan. The point still stands regardless of where Mullah Omar was living: it is inconceivable that many people in the ISI and Pakistani military did not know where Osama was hiding. The fact that Omar was living near an American base merely suggests that he too had many friends who were interested in protecting him. The Americans were clearly in the dark. The Pakistanis, I believe, were not in the dark about Osama.

      I don’t blame Pakistan for the American fiasco in Afghanistan. See my recent post on The Endless War that compares the quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq to Vietnam. There is profound blame on the American side when it comes to Afghanistan. But I think it is also clear that Pakistan has been fearful India will wield significant power and influence in Afghanistan. They have perceived the Taliban as a way of combating the Indian threat in Pakistan. Of course, they have been playing with fire, both double dealing with the U.S. and abetting some of those forces responsible for so much violence in Pakistan. We shall see if the current government in Pakistan will reverse course. It is still too early to tell.

      Finally, the biggest reason Pakistan is, to my mind, a “scary” place is the size of its nuclear arsenal. There is absolutely no reason why Pakistan should have well over 100 nuclear weapons. The same holds true for India. The arms race in the subcontinent is a disaster waiting to happen. I am not so fearful of a nuclear exchange as much as I am about stolen nuclear material that could fuel a dirty bomb. If a dirty bomb were to go off, for instance, in Afghanistan or India, that would set off a chain reaction with unimaginable consequences.

      I agree that diplomacy is critical. Early on in the Obama administration, the president appointed Holbrooke to be his special envoy to the region, recognizing that Pakistani/Indian relations represents a danger to world peace. His untimely death and the lack of a replacement figure was a real tragedy. It is not too late to redouble efforts to diffuse tension with skillful diplomacy. But Pakistan must do its part too. Let’s see if it can curtail and even terminate its intimate alliance with the Taliban. And why not let the Americans interview the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program who probably provided valuable information to the North Koreans? Trust is a two way street.

      1. Now that the president and his advisers are banging the war drums against Iran I recall how Bush ginned up the Iraq War not to mention how our leaders mislead us on Vietnam. I see how easy it is to stoke fear and perceived threats. I would tread a little more carefully with Pakistan as I would with Iran and for that matter North Korea. Saber rattling is a dangerous enterprise for us leading as it has to the unjust and disastrous wars we have waged.

  3. Lewis: Yes, fear and perceived threats are this administration’s stock in trade. Let’s hope Congress provides a check, as it failed to do with respect to both Iraq and Vietnam, against the war mongering that we are witnessing.

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