“Taliban strategy could threaten Pakistan’s nukes” Richard Sale

Taliban Administration officials see a sinister new shift in Taliban strategy in the latest attacks on Pakistani nuclear scientists and engineers, key players in developing Islamabad’s strategic weaponry.

One of Pakistan’s most dangerous terrorist groups, the Tehrik-e-Taliban, has claimed responsibility for a July 2 assault when Pakistani engineers and scientists in a bus traveling on the Rawalpindi-Peshawar Road were rammed by a lone suicide bomber on a motor bike, killing six and wounding 36 others, according to press accounts confirmed by U.S. officials.

Former U.S. intelligence officials believe the Tehrik-e-Taliban were also responsible for a May 27 attack on a Lahore police station and the local office of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, killing 15 police officers, one ISI lt. colonel and 10 other persons.

Other Tehrik-e-Taliban targets include the Kahuta Research Laboratories which built Pakistan’s nuclear bombs, weapons grade uranium and long-range missiles, along with the Army-run Mechanical Complex at Taxila, both built with Chinese assistance.

“The terrorists are sending a clear message: they can strike where they want, what they want, and when they want,” said an administration official.

   John Nagl, president of the Center for New American Security, said recently: that the “brew” of the growing strength of the Pakistan terror group Tehrik-e-Taliban and its “potential to damage the Pakistan government and to seize control of at least some of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons” is the “most dangerous brew in the world today.” 

   Currently there are four major jihadi groups operating inside Pakistan and three inside Afghanistan, according to counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen who has publicly described the Pakistan four as a “fragmented coalition, based on “alliances of convenience” who have “no central leadership that can be dealt with, co-opted or eliminated.”

“The presence of core (Al-Qaeda) leaders and nuclear weapons in Pakistan…makes the Taliban an extremely serious threat to the international community and our entire strategic position,” he wrote recently.

   According to U.S. and Indian intelligence officials, the TTP are perhaps the most formidable of the jihadi groups because it contains a growing number of ex-servicemen from the Pakistani army. Members of the Pashtun tribe contributed a large number of trained and experienced soldiers and officers to the Pakistan army when Pakistan was established in 1947.

   According to recent statements by Bahukutumbi Raman, a former senior Indian intelligence expert, the Pakistani government neglected these servicemen after their terms of service were up, and the TTP was quick to utilize them, not only for the training of new recruits but also for conducting operations.

    Their superiority in conventional military and guerilla operations is unquestioned, several sources said. Using ambushes, diversionary attacks, flanking movements, frontal assaults and asymmetric warfare methods including suicide attacks, the TTP fought the Pakistani Army to a stalemate in the Swat Valley, then began operations in the Baajur Agency, the Kurram Agency and North Waziristan where it again outfought Islamabad’s regular forces.

   But the latest attack is clear evidence that the TTP has devised a new strategy that focuses more of its power in attacking key, highly sensitive  military facilities, acting on its vow to topple the Pakistan government and seize its nuclear weapons. The July 2 assault nearly embarrassed the Islamabad government, which claimed that the plant that employed the targeted workers was “non-nuclear,” a statement vigorously denied by U.S. experts. “That’s just plain bull,” said a congressional source, noting that the wounded were treated at a hospital run by the Kahuta nuclear lab.  

For several former CIA officials the strike demonstrated the excellent and timely intelligence possessed by TTP operatives. “The attackers had very exact information,” said one.

Part of the TTP’s excellence is due to its gifted leader, Baitullah Mehsud from the Shubi Khel branch of the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region. He is a notorious figure: accused of orchestrating the murder of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and he has boasted that he will attack Washington, D.C.

  His career has been colorful. After the U.S.-invasion of Afghanistan, Baitullah fled Afghanistan and went to South Waziristan. Writing for the Jamestown Foundation, Taliban expert Muktiar Khan has stated that Baitullah has great political acumen, is skilled at creating liaisons with local tribal leaders and is deft in using them and the media to get out his message that Afghanistan must be liberated by jihad: “ Only jihad can bring peace to the world.”

Baitullah’s tactics know no mercy He introduced suicide bombings, the recruitment of children for martyrdom operations, and the beheading of what he termed, “anti-Taliban spies,” and he tolerates no dissent. Over 200 tribal leaders who resisted his program were killed by the most brutal means, Khan said.

    Baitullah is protected by a personal force of 20,000 men who are seasoned fighters, sources said. He is the second Pakistani to carry a U.S. bounty on his head of $5 million, the first being Mir Amal Kasi, who was captured in Pakistan and executed in 2002 for the murder of two CIA agents outside the agency’s headquarters in 1993.

U.S. officials see Baitullah as a dangerous Al-Qaeda facilitator, and there is a stolid, unrelenting determination to put an end to him and his career that has resulted in some very close calls.

Late last month, the agreement among Pakistan, India, and the United States to exchange intelligence, began to produce solid results. Thanks to pressure from the CIA, the three countries agreed to share data on Taliban commanders and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the latter allegedly the force behind the terrorist attack on Mumbai last November which left 170 dead, according to the State Department.

On June 23, three Predator drones launched three Hellfire missiles killing 83 people at a funeral for a Taliban commander who had been killed during a Predator strike earlier that day, according to U.S. officials and press accounts.

According to a former CIA official, the Predators fired on Taliban vehicles as they attempted to flee the funeral. This official said that the abrupt appearance of the Predators above the vehicles required “precise information” that could not have come from human intelligence.

   The attack took place at the village of Lattaka in the Shabikhel area of South Waziristan where Mehsud is based.

    He added that it was “highly possible” that a passenger in one of the vehicles had been speaking on his cell phone and was intercepted by U.S. technical intelligence specialists in Afghanistan, but he felt it was equally likely that the targeting intelligence came from U.S. spy satellites that keep constant surveillance on vehicular movements in Pakistan.

    This former official said that Predators had been observed in the area by local villagers, yet had not fired until specific vehicles at the funeral had begun to move.

   Both June 23 attacks coincided with a meeting between top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders that included Siraj Haqqani, Yahu Yahya al-Libi, two senior deputies of Mullah Abdullah Zakir, and Abdul Haq, according to news accounts.

    The three Taliban leaders escaped.

    Pentagon officials confirmed that the two June attacks were the fourth and fifth Predator attacks since the first of the year.

On July 3, 13 more Taliban were killed in Beitullah’s Mehsud territory at the Khotat Kai camp as part of a continuous, coordinated campaign to eliminate Mehsud and his network of training camps, according to Pentagon officials.

   A former senior CIA official said that the operation has been a coordinated operation of U.S. and Pakistani forces where the two forces operate independently of each other and not under joint command and control.

But according to several sources, Baitullah barely escaped the June attacks: “We missed by a whisker,” one former U.S. intelligence official said.

Raman, a former senior Indian intelligence official, said the strikes were “well-planned, intelligence-driven and smartly executed.”

    But Baitullah is still active, and the question remains, is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal secure?

Under the terms of secret agreements, U.S. personnel have been stationed in Pakistan whose sole function is to guarantee and secure the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal and keep it out of the hands of terrorists, according to several serving and former U.S. officials.

The United States has spent $100 million in bolstering security for Islamabad’s arsenal, including securing warheads, storing missiles and triggers in separate facilities, and putting together a more invulnerable system of command and control. 

   Some of the American technicians have had direct access to the nuclear weapons themselves, these sources said.

   In any case, Pakistan’s nukes are currently secure, in the opinion of several former and serving U.S. officials. “They are for now,” said one.

Yet doubt still lingers.

Asked if Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was safe, former senior CIA official Milt Bearden was skeptical. “We don’t even know where it all is,” he said.

    But South Asia expert Anthony Cordesman replied, “If the Pakistanis thought we knew where it all was, they’d move it.”

According to Pakistani Ministry of Interior figures, from June 2007 to the present, 2,267 have died in 158 Taliban suicide attacks.



By Richard Sale – Middle East Times Intelligence Correspondent


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17 Responses to “Taliban strategy could threaten Pakistan’s nukes” Richard Sale

  1. Fred says:

    At least Col. Nagl learned something from the Malasian uprsing. “…C. C. Too, who became head of the Psychological Warfare Section in 1955. He believed that it was more important to propagandize the civilians, rather than the insurgents, as the insurgents listened to the masses.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malayan_Emergency
    (Big business was one step ahead of Wall Street as they knew calling a ‘war’ rather than an emergency meant no insurance payouts.)
    “Baitullah is protected by a personal force of 20,000 men who are seasoned fighters, sources said.”
    Just where on the planet do you hide 20,000 armed men? Or should I just respond that as a US citizen I am protected by a force of 1,097,050 (not counting the USAF, Navy, Marine Corps and all the multitude of state, county and municipal police forces.)?
    Three predator drones fired three missles, hit the three intended targets, killed 83 people; just not the THREE that we wanted to kill? How about a couple of helicopters with snipers to shoot out the tires and a local police force to arrest the targets? (If you get it wrong you can replace a tire; you can’t replace the dead).
    Perhaps Richard could write a ‘dead dogmas of the past’ relating to counterisurgency? http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2009/02/dead-dogmas-of-the-past-richard-sale.html

  2. F B Ali says:

    There is no possibility of the TTP (or any other jihadi group) seizing any of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. This is as remote an occurrence as the recent scare in the West about the TTP marching on Islamabad. Both are the result of over-active imaginations combined with a serious lack of understanding of the ground realities in that country.
    I have been saying for some time on this site that there exists a serious possibility of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan at some point down the road if current policies continue to be pursued. That is very different from stating that the Taliban (or any other jihadi outfit) will be able to do so.

  3. I think the AF-Pak theatre is not all about NUKES and WMD generally but it certainly is mostly. Boots on the ground whether with or without permission will be tricky. Hope we are strategizing now and developing appropriate tactics? Also hoping that other nations might assist including China and Russia and India. Perhaps I am dreaming of such a coalition over AF-PAK!

  4. Well….FB Ali’s assessment is exactly what I heard from general officer level folks in the Indian military with whom I spoke in Delhi in December. We will be having some further discussions in a fortnight.
    Seems realistic to me: no Taliban with nukes but a possibility of an Islamist Pakistan with nukes. And yes, the real issue is Pakistan NOT Afghanistan where “guile” can suffice.

  5. curious says:

    “There is no possibility of the TTP (or any other jihadi group) seizing any of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”
    maybe not. Even if a taliban is given a pakistani warhead (or any of us here), he can’t just walk next to it, twaddle a little and detonate it. nuke head doesn’t come with big red “push here to detonate” red button.
    However, the state of pakistan is definitely not sitting on firm ground. I can envision various scenario where major pakistani instiution cracks due to Pakistan budget shattering. (eg. forcing the military to fend for itself.)
    ..then… it’s all get funky. Division, inner clash, missing blueprint, incomplete weapon inventory, corruption, etc.
    or worst, a military faction gets clever and decide to take course on its own hand by using taliban asset.
    Whatever it is, as a whole, I really can’t see Pakistan can sustain itself on present course. The budgetary number doesn’t add up. unemployment is very high, and the 2 low level wars Pakistan are involved wont go away anytime soon. Pakistani upper leadership really need to get together in secret and have frank discussion. 3-4 yrs from now. It will be too late. Pakistan military leadership may think it has a handle on internal problem. But externally, the central asian conflict will turn very ugly. Af-pak will be the stage where dagger and long swords being thrown around. Pakistan will be torn to pieces just like Afghanistan.
    The uighur case and green revolution are the opening signs …
    oh, and the generals and troop in afghanistan better prepare. cause they are going to fight alone and neglected while the idiot in washington getting very confuse. The general better have a plan when af-pak is turning into free for all arena.

  6. zanzibar says:

    FB Ali
    Thanks for your clear headed perspective. From my laymans viewpoint stories of jihadists capturing nukes or having a victory march through downtown Islamabad always seems like hyperbole. Who are the beneficiaries of such apocalyptic stories? Do these stories have much credence inside Pakistan or is it purely for Western consumption where very few know the difference between a Pashtun and a Balochi?
    Why do you believe there is a possibility for Islamists to take over Pakistan? I am led to understand that the Islamist political parties have not done well at the ballot box over the past decades. Would they have the political strength to take on the Army high command and win? In your opinion are there significant fault lines within the Army that could break up the most powerful institution in Pakistan?
    A second generation Pakistani-American acquaintance of mine suggested to me a couple years ago that Pakistan & India should reunite. His rationale was that there is significant familial and cultural ties particularly between Punjabis & Sindhis. That a united Pakistan & India could resist big power influence and their destabilization activities. They could defeat terrorist activities since the flash point of Kashmir would become moot and the Pakistani economy could become integrated with the rapidly growing Indian economy. My intuitive sense was that it would take at least another 5 generations before the political elites on both sides would be open to such an idea. What I found interesting however was that such an idea could exist.

  7. F B Ali says:

    I had laid out my view of how an Islamist takeover of Pakistan could occur in my note “Losing Pakistan”, which Col Lang posted on this site in May this year. Islamists are not to be found in just the Islamist political parties. Every Pakistani nationalist is a potential Islamist, since the country’s national identity is closely tied to a political concept of Islam.
    Your Pakistani-American acquaintance has probably spent too much time away from his country. No one in Pakistan (or any Pakistani who has any serious connection to his country) will give that thought a moment’s consideration.
    Yes, Pakistan has budgetary problems. However, rest assured neither the US nor the international community can afford to let it go bankrupt. There is also no possibility of Pakistan disintegrating.
    I would respectfully suggest that boldly extrapolating without any real knowledge of the underlying situation is likely to lead to significantly wrong conclusions.

  8. Harper says:

    Several observations on Richard Sale’s very informative report, and some of the commentaries. First, “loose nukes” is the ultimate nightmare of the early 21st century, so if there is an issue that is sure to rationalize a continued U.S. military presence in the AfPak theater, it is this. My own information is that the Pakistanis have an understanding with the Chinese, that in the event of any genuine threat to the security of the nuclear arsenal, the Chinese will step in. Two reasons: The Chinese were instrumental (through North Korea cutouts) in providing nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan. Second, if the U.S. steps in to “secure” the Pak nukes, they will never be returned. With China as guarantors of the security of the nukes, the Pakistanis are more confident they would be secured and returned at the appropriate moment. SecDef Gates this weekend repeated his acknowledgement that the American people and Congress are tiring of the AfPak adventure, after eight years, and with the U.S. economy crashing, unemployment skyrocketing, bank bailouts estimated in the trillions, with no prospect of taxpayers getting the majority of their money back. He admits he has to show success, prospects of victory and an exit strategy within a year, or it’s curtains for Congressional funding and popular support. So, the only action that could show credible signs of success in such a short amount of time is wacking some of the top Taliban/Al Qaeda leaders and parading photos of their corpses. It comes down to another deck of cards. This is why McChrystal is there.
    I found the proposal for India/Pakistan unification a very thought-provoking idea. Look back at the history: At the end of World War II, it was clear to the liberal imperialists in London that the days of the League of Nations “Mandate” system were over. So the British devised “partition” as the answer to their dilemma. They partitioned Indian subcontinent on the way out the door, creating a permanent conflict, with Kashmir as the flashpoint. They partitioned Palestine, and no need to recount that headache. So the idea of ending these divide-and-conquer partitions is very appealing, all the more so when you consider how they came about. So, today we also see a growing movement for a “one-state solution” to Israel-Palestine, since no Zionist faction in Israel will ever truly accept a just two-state solution. Of course one-state solution in Palestine is no more likely than one-state solution in the subcontinent, but I find it a valuable proposal, one worth pursuing, even if it is a few generations into the future.
    I recall Gen. George Marshall, in his capacity as Truman’s Cabinet secretary, opposing the partition of Palestine and the recognition of Israel–warning it would come to no good. Clark Clifford trumped Marshall’s opposition on purely domestic political grounds, arguing that Truman would lose New York State and other must-win states if he didn’t endorse Israel.

  9. curious says:

    Yes, Pakistan has budgetary problems. However, rest assured neither the US nor the international community can afford to let it go bankrupt. There is also no possibility of Pakistan disintegrating.
    I would respectfully suggest that boldly extrapolating without any real knowledge of the underlying situation is likely to lead to significantly wrong conclusions.
    Posted by: F B Ali | 19 July 2009 at 10:23 PM ”
    Pakistan energy consumption, budget numbers along with how Pakistan inflation will play out in the event of dollar/bond bubble pop are online. Unemployment, pakistan military salary, or basic staple price can be guesstimated. But those are black and white with technical solutions.
    It’s how those number interact with current trend in US operation in afghanistan, strength and weaknesses of US foreign policy execution, and how big powers relate with each other in central asia, that makes it worrying.
    All that return to taliban/Pakistan internal policy.
    -US foreign policy is broken. Everything turns into regional power calculus and pure short term political interest.
    for eg. there is no way the uighur case (combine with tibet) won’t put china on its toe. There is no way Russia won’t bargain hard within the calculus of soviet containment game, Iran-Israel conflict, or India traditional historical role as big dog in south asia.
    Observe how things are very incoherent on basic key ideas, like weapon proliferation (India) or human right (Israel). Nevermind more subtle and complex issue like creating condition to stop al qaeda in afghanistan. Each necessary steps for afghanistan turns into contentious bargaining. Nobody seems interested working with us. It’s like pulling teeth.
    basically, US ability to create and execute on coherent foreign policy over time is gone. We are back to Condi Rice era. Schizoid, expediency and side themese takes over. Each problem seems to be feeding on each other.
    -Tension with China. One would be pretty blind not noticing the tension build up with China. Full clash between China and US won’t be like Soviet vs. US in central asia. It will be subtle and decadal but deadly just the same. Dollar bubble will go first, then central asia economy, followed by insurgency/proxy war and arm supply. Afghanistan/Pakistan are obvious point where clash of conflict will occur.
    -US and taliban stuff. observing afghanistan war, one is forced to conclude US has lost a lot of instruments in the tool box. Everything now ends with miltary force or basic coercive bargaining/diplomacy. The rest is who knows what contractors & NGO. things like mass media, ability to build large civilian construction, public relationship, local understanding, ability to persuade.
    Since central asia is key to world energy supply at the moment (Uranium, gas, oil) the game won’t stop until one of the big power head get blown off and withdraw from the arena.
    And Pakistan will serve as US proxy. A taliban splinter or taliban like group will once again be used as proxy and to enforce situation in Pakistan and surrounding. Then its slice and dice time between the big powers.
    Basically: It’s a BIG REHASH.
    Somebody will reignite the old game. And why not? it’s effective and cost a little.
    So either Pakistan get rid of taliban or it will be once again be used like it was suppose to work originally. (destabilization, terrorism, death by thousand cuts)
    And no. Pakistan won’t control jack. Pakistan will be nothing but legal shell, like afghanistan.

  10. zanzibar, all:
    here is some data on terrorism and Pakistan:
    “There is little evidence of coherent action against the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan, and state agencies remain deeply embroiled with a number of terrorist proxies, even while they fight groupings that have turned renegade, and that are now attacking targets within the country. Pakistan’s continuing support to externally oriented terrorist formations, however, is creating the very spaces within which groups that target Islamabad flourish. Unless the Pakistani state entirely abandons the instrumentalisation of jihadi terror as a strategic tool, neither the country nor the wider region can hope for any possibilities of peace. …”

  11. zanzibar says:

    The last sentence says it all. I am still trying to understand the Pakistani military strategy – it seems that India is too large and their institutions are too deeply entrenched and their political system has managed change of power through elections – to be easily destabilized through terrorist actions. Even in Kashmir it seems there is a majority turnout for elections. All it does apparently is increase military spending in India and Pakistan really cannot compete on that score. Notice the huge push on Hillary’s visit to lobby for a fighter jet deal and other military and nuclear acquisitions.
    FB Ali
    I missed your earlier note “Losing Pakistan”. Great read. Thanks. Intuitively it makes sense that using blunt instruments to control the Taliban results in a significant humanitarian situation with large displaced populations. And the inherent corruption would mean that the least corrupted – the Islamists – gain the sympathy and support of the people while the government and the military are painted as lackeys of the US destroying peoples lives. In this case aren’t the Islamists the Islamic political parties who are now broadening their support base or as you say nationalistic elements who become Islamist – how are they manifested? Why would it be bad for Pakistani society if the Islamists came to power on the basis of broad based support – other than it would mean a much more conservative society? I am under the impression that under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq that Pakistan was essentially made into an Islamist state.
    Also, why do you think that the thought of re-unification with India will not be given “a moment’s consideration”?

  12. curious says:

    somebody is moving the mass
    Hundreds of people blocked off parts of the city today, burning tires and stoning police vans. Protesters also gathered on major roads across the city yesterday evening, disrupting rush hour traffic.
    “We are going through the worst of times,” said Hassan Soomro, an office clerk. “Our house was flooded and we are still without power or running water.”
    Demonstrations against power outages broke out in cities across the country last month heaping pressure on the government as it seeks to crush an insurgency by militants in the northwest.
    Protesters set fire to train wagons and smashed windows of government buildings in several cities across the biggest province of Punjab today, Express News television reported. Stores remained closed and traders joined in the protests in Lahore, Jhang, Faisalabad and other towns, the broadcaster said.

  13. F B Ali says:

    Your questions require long answers. Maybe in a future note I’ll try to do that.

  14. zanzibar says:

    NYT op-ed by Kristof
    Maybe the extremists have over-reached? It seems that without public support the Taliban movement could fail. What will be the next political metamorphosis?
    FB Ali I look forward to your next note.

  15. curious says:

    If Kristoff says overreaching, conclude the other way around. This means Pakistan has no control whatsoever. And things about to crumble. (his column is pay to play.)

  16. Different Clue says:

    Why would India want Pakistan “back”? Wouldn’t India be afraid of Pakistani
    Islamicists working to inflame and Islamicise India’s own Muslims? Why would India want to own the various social and economic tensions and problems in Pakistan?
    With all the Naxalite Maoist insurgency problems India now has throughout its
    forested tribal minority regions, why would India wish to take on the Liberation Tigers of Pashtun Eelam?
    Are there rewards to be gained through re-unification which are so big
    as to be worth the pain of those problems? (Or am I overblowing those problems in my own mind anyway)?

  17. curious says:

    QUETTA – The Ameer of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) Maulana Fazlur Rehman has said that government has so far failed to implement the recommendations of Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and warned that if CII’s recommendations were not implemented JUI-F would quit the ruling coalition.
    ‘PPP had pledged to implement the recommendations of CII at earliest, but despite a lapse of one and a half year, no practical steps had been taken’, he complained while addressing the concluding session of two day ‘Tahaffuz-e-Deeni Madaris’ conference here on Friday.
    He strongly condemned the ongoing military drive in Swat and Malakand and termed it the continuity of dictatorial policies of former regime which would harm the national security and democracy.
    ‘A high-level judicial inquiry should be made into launching operation in Malakand and failure of Swat Accord that claimed lives of innocent people and left millions homeless’, he demanded.

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