As long-time readers know, this weblog has an optimistic outlook on most aspects of our future. However, there is one particular topic on which I have not yet written, even though I read every available article on the subject. It is a topic on which I can't assign a sizable probability to any positive outcome. It is the topic of Pakistan and it's nuclear weapons.
Pakistan is a country that did not exist until 1947, when it was carved out of British India at the time of Indian Independence. There were two non-contiguous pieces of Pakistan on either side of India, and East Pakistan separated to become Bangladesh in 1971, after a genocide in East Pakistan killed 1.5 million people (from Wikipedia).
Today, the remaining nation of Pakistan still has 160 million people, the political boundaries of which still do not corelate to any particular ethnic homogeniety. In a nutshell, the massive Indus river flows through the middle of the country, to the east of which reside Punjabi and Sindhi groups, which are quite Indian-like in appearance, language, cuisine, and culture, and to the west of which are found Pashtuns and other groups with a distinctly Turkic and Persian culture and appearance. The Indus river has historically been the natural boundary between Indian and Turco-Persian civilizations for over 2000 years, and evidence of this is visible in Pakistan to this day (image from Wikipedia).
The 'Indian-like' part of Pakistan amounts to 75% of Pakistan's population, and is experiencing economic growth approaching that of India itself, at 6% to 7% a year. Globalization is rapidly lifting people out of poverty for the first time. Despite this, however, Pakistan remains one of the poorest countries outside of Africa, and also a country where democracy is distant, unlike in neighboring India.
But this 75% of Pakistan is secondary. The most crucial region is actually the most remote, most medieval, most undeveloped segment of Pakistan, where under 10% of the population resides. It is the Northwest Frontier Province and Waziristan, where Pakistan's government has never had total control, and where local tribal customs were the only recognized law. Until the Taliban and Al-Qaeda came to town.
Now, to grasp the magnitude of the potential horror, consider the following three facts :
1) Pakistan has 30-50 nuclear weapons. Whether this technology was delivered directly by China or through North Korea in the 1990s is moot at this point.
2) Al-Qaeda and the Taliban now control many districts of Northern Pakistan, with Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden (if still alive) also residing there. Pakistan's army and government have little power to expel Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and they continually attempt to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf.
3) The founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was found to be selling nuclear secrets in the black market. His customer list is still unknown, and there may have been, or still be, others like him.
I can't see how the combination of these 3 facts can result in anything other than the detonation of a nuclear weapon in an act of terrorism against a major US or European city, between now and 2020. Can anyone say with confidence that the probability of this is low?
Pakistan has already had nuclear weapons for 9 or more years, so why is the risk greater now? This brings us back to point 2), and to understand the ominous trend of the Taliban gaining control over a greater and greater share of Pakistan, read some of Bill Roggio's articles. In particular, this map tracks the rate of advancement of the Taliban's control, and distinctly shows them to be metastasizing deeply into Pakistan at an alarming rate.
President Musharraf is nominally an ally of the US in the War on Terror, to the extent that he cracks down on terrorists when US demands to do so reach a certain intensity. But this secular dictator is the thinnest of buffers between the current state and a nightmare scenario. If Musharraf is assassinated and theocratic rule prevails in Pakistan, it would be far worse than the 1979 events in Iran. Whatever remaining chance there is for terrorists being prevented from gaining access to nuclear weapons (if it is already not too late) resides with President Musharraf, or a similarly secular successor, remaining in power.
If the Taliban do come into power, the options are few. While a simple invasion by the US, India, and NATO would dispose of the Taliban quickly, it may not prevent them from retaining and smuggling out the nuclear weapon capabilities. While most Punjabi and Sindhi Pakistanis have no desire to be ruled by the Taliban, they may not be able to throw off the yoke of subjugation even through a massive civil war (again, with the nuclear technology easily walking off).
Be afraid. Be very afraid.