Preserving Pakistani Security

Pakistani troops at a security checkpoint in Quetta in May.

The internal security of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal was causing global concern even prior to the September 11th attacks. Since then, the situation has only worsened. The country's economy has shrunk by $43 billion, over 9,000 civilians have been killed, there have been two presidential assassination attempts, and a number of other key politicians were killed. Terrorist attacks increased by 43 percent in 2008 and by an additional 49 percent in 2009.

Pakistan's military, long hailed as the guardian of the state, increasingly seems to be losing control of internal security. Its uneasy coexistence with extremist groups based in the frontier regions has given way to outright battle, with militants for the first time encroaching upon the military's core areas of control. In early 2009, 4,000 extremists took control of the relatively wealthy, liberal Swat Valley, imposing sharia law for months before the military recovered the area.

Infiltration has also affected military control. The two assassination attempts against President Musharraf in 2003 were carried out by al Qaeda fighters with the cooperation of Pakistani Air Force officers. Later that year, militants wearing Army uniforms and demonstrating familiarity with the complex's layout managed a brief takeover of Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, killing 23 people. This past May, militants assaulted a Karachi naval base just blocks from a nuclear fuel storage facility in revenge for recent steps by the Navy to purge al Qaeda members from its ranks. The attack's sophistication suggested infiltrators working inside the base had assisted, and the subsequent leafleting of barracks with al Qaeda propaganda confirmed this.

Additionally, countless low-ranking recruits, several officers, and most recently and notably an Army brigadier have been dismissed for ties to extremist groups. Thus, the infiltration of Pakistan's military, combined with the increasing conflict the military faces, seriously threatens Pakistan's internal security.

This growing inability to provide security has also further delegitimized Pakistan's already historically weak political government. In many areas where state authority is weak or absent, its role is supplanted by radical Islamic networks of schools and charities. These networks inflame notions of religious conflict, glorify martyr ideology and fuel anti-Indian rage, fashioning new terrorist ideologues from the youth and providing safe harbor for likeminded militants from abroad. Furthermore, in the wake of Pakistan's devastating 2010 floods, these networks often provided rescue and aid more quickly than the government, showcasing greater capability, legitimacy and authority than the government. In this way, growing religious extremism has further weakened Pakistan's political institutions and become a self-reinforcing factor—both a cause and an effect—in the country's destabilization.

If Pakistani security continues to erode, international security would be negatively affected in three alarming ways. First, Pakistan's role as a breeding ground and refuge for globally active terrorist cells would increase. Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have found training and refuge in Pakistan from which to project a global reach, as have Americans such as Faisal Shahzad (the "Times Square bomber") and British nationals such as the six arrested in late September. Pakistan-based terrorist groups have seen a fair level of success in spite of reasonable state security this past decade, so if internal security were to collapse, such terrorist successes would surely multiply.

Second, a destabilized Pakistan would facilitate the growth of regionally focused terrorist groups and undermine nascent security gains in Afghanistan and India. Militants based from within Pakistan have long waged war on India and are responsible for much of the violence in Kashmir as well as the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The remnants of the Afghan Taliban, the Quetta Shura, have made their home in Pakistan and direct much of the Afghan insurgency from there. The Haqqani network, responsible for this year's U.S. embassy attack in Afghanistan and closely tied to both al Qaeda and the Taliban (and Pakistani intelligence), is also based in Pakistan. Presently, many of these regionally focused terrorist cells operate within relative confines set by Pakistan's military-intelligence sector (despite U.S. objections). However, if Pakistani internal security were to further decline, the cells would have the opportunity to strengthen, expand and operate independently of any state control. This development would render these cells immune to any state-based negotiations, hinder democratization and peace in Afghanistan, and lead to a range of provocative situations involving India.

Lastly, rogue states and non-state actors could obtain elements of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal or the technology required to build their own. Pakistan has roughly 100 nuclear weapons deployed and possesses fuel for another 40 to 100. The vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear fuel supplies, specifically, was shown to cause concern among senior U.S. officials in recently leaked diplomatic cables. Should Pakistan's security fail, international security would be threatened by two scenarios.

In the first scenario, non-state actors, themselves invulnerable to the threat of mutually assured destruction, may obtain and use nuclear weapons. Barring successful theft of an operational nuclear weapon, radiological dispersal devices, or "dirty bombs," could be easily fashioned from weapons-grade fuel and detonated with similar effect. In the second scenario, rogue states could obtain Pakistani nuclear technology and expertise and develop their own weapons systems and proliferation networks, much as Pakistan's now-disrupted A.Q. Khan network successfully exported such expertise to North Korea, Libya and Iran previously. Such a network would likely involve state sponsors of terror and consequently would also increase the future likelihood of the first scenario.

Thus, a collapse of Pakistani security would result in severe global consequences. As such, the United States, the European Union and most other global powers are inescapable stakeholders in this challenge. Attempts to secure Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal will be challenging, and must account for the weak political system; fanatical concerns over sovereignty; a military-intelligence sector complicit with extremist groups; and misguided military-intelligence efforts to prepare for post-NATO regional primacy at the expense of long-term regional stability. An array of measures—likely more military in nature—will be needed to overcome these challenges and secure Pakistan in the short term. However, in conjunction with whatever other efforts are made, Pakistan's long-term security requires the launch of a well-funded, long-term and multilateral program to effectively combat Islamic extremism—the self-reinforcing factor most responsible for Pakistan's security deficit.

This program must develop influential youth content that promotes credible domestic leaders who exemplify moderate Islam or secularism. Islamic schools must be folded into government ones where possible, and dissolved where not, and must teach robust and credible curricula that incorporate this new content. Civic centers, too, must expand and become forceful icons of state control and ideological moderation. By successfully undermining Pakistan's radicalizing institutions, fewer militants will seek to fight the state military, fewer sympathizers will evolve into infiltrators, and a lack of legitimacy will prevent radical networks from displacing state authority. Best of all, if moderate and secular values are properly introduced and the program is maintained for some time, there should be a compounding effect, further strengthening moderate state institutions and the ideology they advocate.

Combating radical ideology consists of offering a positive alternative to extremism, and capitalizes on the opportunity to inexpensively create a snowball effect. Such programs are also quite inexpensive relative to warfare and brick-and-mortar nation building. They could easily be offset with funds saved from the military drawdown, which would greatly increase their political viability when potential multilateral partners consider offering their support. Facing the financial and strategic costs involved with a rollback of South Asia's hard-earned stabilization progress, an expansion of sophisticated global terror networks, and the proliferation of nuclear technology among autocrats and terrorists, a novel, multilateral and inexpensive stabilization effort is more than worth a try.

Michael D. Rettig is a master's student of international relations at New York University.