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Nuclear Weapons

What Does the Fall of Afghanistan Mean for Regional Nuclear Security?

by Terrell J. Starr
September 28, 2021

Afghanistan has never been a nuclear state, but the Taliban's takeover of Kabul has caused some Washington lawmakers to ask if the proper security precautions are in place to keep it that way.

In an August 24 letter, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to President Joe Biden about their concerns of a power vacuum after U.S. troops left Afghanistan. One of the questions they asked was “Do you have a plan to ensure that Afghanistan, under Taliban occupation, will never acquire a nuclear weapon?”

To be sure, the country doesn’t have the infrastructure to build anything like what North Korea is building with its ICBM program, for example. Though, several experts Outrider interviewed for this story say Afghanistan can pose a threat as a transfer route for nuclear materials or a dirty bomb.

Elizabeth Threlkeld, a Senior Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, and Sylvia Mishra, a New Tech Nuclear Officer at the European Leadership Network, both say that there is no need to fear the development of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. Though we should be mindful of other threats because of the country’s nuclear-armed neighborsIndia and Pakistan. 

Are concerns that the Taliban can acquire a nuclear weapon legitimate and is the threat real? Some lawmakers in the U.S. seem to think so.

Threlkeld said anything is possible, but she would not put a high probability on the Taliban getting their hands on a nuclear weapon any time soon. Though terrorist groups the Taliban has relationships with, such as al-Qaeda, certainly would like to gain access to nuclear materials, even that is not very likely, Threlkeld said. What is more likely is that the Taliban could make a dirty bomb

 

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Does Afghanistan even have the infrastructure to host a nuclear weapon? Does it have the infrastructure to build one from scratch?

As for infrastructure, absolutely not. 

Also, the Taliban doesn’t have the technocratic expertise to even begin such a project, Threlkeld told Outrider. Given that much of the population lives in poverty and that the country is experiencing so much instability, it is unlikely to be something the Taliban has given any thought to. Also, building a nuclear weapons program is expensive and the Taliban doesn’t have the funds to pay for any infrastructure projects or have access to foreign reserves.

“The challenges facing Afghanistan are so acute in so many ways that it’s difficult to even answer that question,” Threlkeld said. “I should say that we haven't seen any indication from the Taliban that there is any interest in nuclear capability.”

Can the Taliban destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear state?

This was another concern raised by the lawmakers. According to Mishra, the answer lies in the Taliban's motivation. 

“Poor relations with Pakistan are not in the Taliban's interest,” she said. “Rather than the Taliban destabilizing Pakistan, it would be important for the U.S. and the West to track to what extent the Pakistani government is enabling the Taliban to continue providing safe havens to terrorists and terror networks. But a Taliban attack on nuclear weapons facilities in Pakistan cannot be ruled out. U.S. lawmakers have indicated this risk.”

Threlkeld, who served as a U.S. State Department officer in Afghanistan, said that it is worth watching the country as a potential smuggling route for conventional weapons and drugs. “The Taliban is having to rely on other sources of income beyond its foreign reserves as it remains under sanctions,” she said. “Afghanistan remains a hotspot for smuggling,” but there is no information suggesting that nuclear arms or materials are part of that.

group of Afghan men stand inside an empty aircraft

Taliban fighters stand inside an Afghan Air Force aircraft at the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the U.S. had pulled all its troops out of the country.

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

What are some ways in which the US should engage the Taliban to ensure that they do not seek a nuclear weapon?

For now, said Mishra, the U.S. should ensure tighter controls on proliferation networks and close scrutiny of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence activities and the activities of the remnants of the Abdul Qadeer Khan network.

Also of note, Pakistan was recently rated the most improved as far as securing its nuclear materials. A Taliban spokesperson did say in August that Afghanistan's soil will not be used as a staging ground to harm Americans. Of course, the grain of salt rule applies here. Though, these are words Washington can hold the Taliban to, Threlkeld said. She added that India and Pakistan should maintain open lines of communication with Kabul to ensure that a crisis situation doesn’t get out of control or that a major security issue that no one is prepared for actually happens. 

“There are a lot of potential threats and risks emanating from the new situation in Afghanistan,” Threlkeld said. “National security priorities that the Biden Administration has laid out, most principally counter terrorism and preventing another attack from Afghan soil, are ones the U.S. should be focused on. The dust is still settling. It is important to keep in mind the regional implications as well, given this is a neighborhood with three nuclear-armed states if you include China in that mix. So the risk of terror groups based in Afghanistan and across the region gaining a propaganda boost from a Taliban victory is high, and it is important to keep in mind the potential nuclear dimension given Afghanistan’s nuclear-armed neighbors.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root, where he writes about U.S. politics and interviews elected officials. He is also the founder of Black Diplomats, a weekly foreign affairs podcast that tells stories from a Black perspective. His Twitter handle is @russian_starr

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