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04.22.09

The Taliban's Nuclear Threat

As insurgents close in on Islamabad, The Daily Beast’s Gerald Posner reports that Taliban forces are on the verge of seizing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal—which has the capability to hit India, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

This morning, Taliban units took control of the Buner region of Pakistan, bringing their burgeoning insurgency within 60 miles of the capital city of Islamabad. The government called the advance a breach of a recently signed peace agreement. But what did they expect? Any store owner who has faced ever-increasing protection payments to local gangsters could have told the Pakistanis that their recent string of capitulations to the Taliban—striking peace deals and ceding territory—was doomed to failure.

You think the stock market looks bad over the last two years? Let a Taliban spokesman announce that Mullah Omar has his finger on the Islamic Bomb.

The Taliban advance should be causing high Richter-scale reactions inside the Obama White House. Counterterrorism officials have long warned that al Qaeda is desperate to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is in play if the Taliban insurgency should unseat the government of Asif Ali Zadari.

Pakistan has been a member of the nuclear club since in 1987. Intelligence estimates are that the country now has between 50 and 100 nuclear missiles that can travel 1,200 miles. That places much of India, Saudi Arabia, and eastern Iraq within range. With slight improvements in the rockets’ booster phase—not a difficult technological advance—Jerusalem could be hit.

Pakistan straddles a fault line between secularism and fundamentalism. Many Pakistani military and intelligence officers are markedly more radical than the centrist Zadari and openly supportive of Osama bin Laden. Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA is still enraged by the central government’s abandonment of both the Taliban and the Kashmiri jihadis. Fundamentalist religious schools—of which Pakistan has more than any other country—churn out thousands of radical Islamists, and outlawed militant parties regularly resurface with new names.

Already, the Obama administration is confronting the problem of a vast, unpoliced territory along the Pakistan-Afghan border that is a safe haven for extremists. Last week, the Taliban commander in the Swat region told a reporter that Osama bin Laden would be welcome in his area, which the Pakistani government has ceded to the control of Islamic fundamentalists. But the CIA's nightmare scenario is now closer to reality: full-blown civil war in which a Taliban-style government wins control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

A Pakistani government led by Sunni fundamentalists could launch a nuclear attack on Iran's Shia provinces, its longtime foe India, and definitely Israel. Economic upheaval in the West would be assured by nuking oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. You think the stock market looks bad over the last two years? Let a Taliban spokesman announce that Mullah Omar has his finger on the Islamic Bomb.

Of course, the use of a nuke by the Taliban would mean certain annihilation for Pakistan, because countries with their own nukes, such as Israel and India, would massively retaliate. But the radicals running Pakistan might not care. If they see themselves as the ultimate martyrs, they might relish meeting Allah in paradise.

This is the scenario that has kept some U.S. intelligence analysts awake at night. With today’s announcement that Taliban insurgents are within an hour’s drive of Islamabad, it might also keep up some members of the Obama administration.

Gerald Posner is the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism . Posner lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.