In May 1998, surprise nuclear tests by India and Pakistan transformed regional strategic calculations and added a dangerous new dimension to tensions between the two.
According to Taylor Branch, writing in The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, Indian officials who spoke with Bill Clinton were fully aware of the potential devastation a clash between the two nations could lead to, calculating that a doomsday nuclear volley would kill 300 to 500 million Indians while annihilating all 120 million Pakistanis (although the Pakistani side insisted its rugged mountain terrain would shield more survivors than the exposed plains of India).
But regardless of the accuracy of these numbers, and although the two countries’ military strategies differ, (India’s is based on conventional superiority, while Pakistan tends to emphasize nuclear deterrence to cancel out this advantage) one thing is clear—the threat of nuclear terrorism looms large over both.
In December 1998, Osama Bin Laden told Time magazine that acquiring weapons for the defence of Muslims is a religious duty. ‘If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty,’ he is reported as saying. Even if the statement was merely rhetoric, it demonstrates intent. However, a number of reports suggest that Bin Laden’s statement was more than just talk.
In August 2001, two Pakistani scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudary Abdul Majeed, met Bin Laden and Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. The two scientists were detained on October 23, 2001, ‘for questioning.’ Majid was a retired nuclear fuel expert from the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, while Mahmood worked on the secret Pakistani gas centrifuge program that ultimately produced the highly enriched uranium used in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
But even without acquiring access to weapons, there are other means of groups such as al-Qaeda engaging in nuclear terrorism. Radioactive dispersal devices, for example, are particularly suited to non-state actors as they are portable and can be used to meet one of the common aims of terrorism, which is to cause significant economic damage. Combined with an explosive device, RDDs can be used to create dirty bombs, which can cause both immediate casualties from their explosions and long-term health and psychological damages from radiation.
Many analysts see Pakistan, and specifically Punjab province, as the most likely source of materials for extremists to undertake such attacks, and the precision of the recent terrorist attacks in Punjab on several Pakistani military facilities suggest there has been some inside help for militants.
On October 10, for example, terrorists dressed as Pakistani soldiers entered the Pakistani Army’s headquarters at Rawalpindi and killed six soldiers, including a brigadier. Subsequent investigations pointed to Illyas Kashmiri, who once served in the Army, as a potential suspect.
Back in 2003, meanwhile, there was a suicide assassination attempt on then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s convoy, from which he narrowly escaped. The investigation, as recorded in a book authored by Musharraf, led to the arrest of low-level army officers who had conspired with Islamists, and who were angry over his co-operation with the United States in cracking down on extremists in the tribal areas.
In India, though, the threats have been more recent, and point to the bigger danger of the link between nuclear facilities and militants. Earlier this month, it was reported that the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an extremist group, is planning to target nuclear scientists (security has reportedly been tightened around several of the alleged targets) while there have also been reports of plans to strike the country’s nuclear infrastructure.
This all comes as India works to expand its nuclear capacity after receiving a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s rules that allow its civilian nuclear deal with the United States to proceed, following strong US lobbying. India has signed treaties with several countries that will help it expand its nuclear infrastructure, but such an expansion needs to be matched by upgrades in security.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh is also working to establish a civilian nuclear power plant after signing a memorandum of understanding on peaceful use of nuclear energy with Russia. Like India and Pakistan, it also faces the challenge of dealing with radicalized groups.
Bringing India into the non-proliferation regime will be crucial if Pakistan is also to be drawn in, moves that would both help reduce the risk of nuclear conflict as well as the risk of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands.
India and Pakistan made a good start in the field of nuclear cooperation when they signed an agreement in 1989 not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities. And in a more recent positive sign, in November 2008, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari stated Pakistan was willing to commit to a no first-use policy for its nuclear weapons—a policy he said he could secure backing from parliament for. However, only 4 days after the suggestion terrorists struck Mumbai, killing 176 people and stirring up tensions between the two.
Pakistan’s refusal to join the nuclear proliferation regime is also linked to India’s rejection of the same system. Both countries are not bound by the conditions reached after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was agreed, such as the 1997 Additional Protocol, to strengthen the non-proliferation regime. As a consequence, the continued exclusion of Pakistan and India from the non-proliferation regime is actually intensifying the nuclear arms race in South Asia.
Bringing India into the regime will mean addressing its objections to becoming part of the arrangement—it believes that the non-proliferation regime is discriminatory as it is rooted in the NPT, which only gives nuclear weapons status to five countries.
The United States has already taken a significant step toward accepting India through the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, the framework for which was agreed in 2005. Here, the US defended the exception for India because of its impeccable record in non-proliferation. But the move in turn upset Pakistan, which argued the exceptional treatment for India risked triggering an arms race.
It seems clear then that granting both countries official nuclear weapons state status through suitable amendments to the NPT would be the best way of curbing the on-going arms race and reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism by making it easier for the International Atomic Energy Agency to hold the nuclear infrastructures of both countries to the highest scrutiny.
Many nations may balk at such a move. But the stakes are too high to not let pragmatism be the guiding basis for policy.
Luv Puri is a Fulbright Fellow at New York University and has written on South Asian related issues for nearly ten years. A previous version of this essay appeared in The Diplomat.