April 24th, 2009
04:44 PM ET

The Taliban's nuclear gambit

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/04/24/nuclear.pakistan/art.troops.jpg caption="Pakistan has deployed paramilitary troops to a district taken over by the Taliban."]

Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

If the Taliban continues its pressure on Pakistan, the single most pressing question for all other nations is what happens to the nukes?

Pakistan has long been believed to keep its warheads disassembled, with the parts spread among a half dozen undisclosed locations. In theory, that means even if Taliban fighters seized sizable portions of the country and the capital, Islamabad, they still might not have a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, even if they captured all the right parts for a warhead, they might not have the expertise to assemble one.

That’s the good news.

The bad news: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and others say Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are primarily made with highly enriched uranium. Pound for pound, it is less powerful than plutonium, but while plutonium requires a sophisticated implosion device to set it off, highly enriched uranium can be detonated with a much lower-tech, cannon-like device. And the Taliban may be capable of making one of those.

What’s more, Carnegie’s James Acton says while most major nation’s have equipment in their air, rail and seaports to detect plutonium, should someone try to smuggle a weapon across a border, highly enriched uranium gives off a much weaker radioactive signal and is easier to hide.

Military experts have suggested there is little doubt, if the Taliban effectively took over Pakistan, that targeted strikes by western powers and their allies would quickly destroy virtually all of that country’s conventional large weaponry, eliminating much of the ability to deliver a barrage of nuclear warheads elsewhere.

The problem is, should the Taliban get nukes, it would not need missiles, planes, or ships to use them to devastating effect. The mere threat of this extremist group secretly transporting a single nuclear bomb into neighboring Afghanistan or India, let alone to more distant lands, would have a massive impact on international security and relations. Let alone the extraordinary concerns of them bartering such weapons into the hands of other terrorist groups.

Filed under: Pakistan • Terrorism • Tom Foreman
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Art

    If there is any evidence that any group was about to obtain nuclear weapons they should be taken out immediately,there won't be a second chance.

    April 26, 2009 at 8:49 am |
  2. Riaz A Hakeem - Texas

    Lets be serious Tom: What do you think is the level of education of the Taliban? Do you think there are some Nuclear Physicists among them? Or even a College graduate? Do you think that the Taliban can tell what is enriched Uranium? I thought one of the problems dealing with them is that all they know is based on religious teachings, if that. The Qur'an is in Arabic and these guys don't understand it. Remember the days when the Church liturgy was in Latin. It sounded great, but who knew what was being said?
    The problem here is that for so long we have said "Al Qaeda and the Taliban" in one sentence that they have become one and the same in our perception. In reality they are not.
    I am no fan of the Taliban, I can't see how any one can be. However for the security of our nation, we need to be able to know our enemies even better than our friends. Even the Afghan Taliban are different than the Pakistani's – it is crucial to understand that.
    (BTW, Anderson made a factual error in his newscast. He said the sign on the Barbershop window saying "shaving prohibited" was in Arabic. It was not, it was in Urdu – the National language of Pakistan. Maybe you can re-view that tape. )
    Have we ever known a Taliban person to fly an airplane?
    Other than shooting guns and blowing things up I believe their knowledge base is pretty limited.
    Here is what is happening as a result of this kind of reporting:
    In Pakistan there is now a widespread belief that since the original Taliban were a US creation therefore this current phase is also a CIA plot with the purpose of taking out Pakistan's Nuclear arsenal and that this will be accomplished by Israel since they are good at this sort of operations.
    I am telling you what my sources are telling me - AND the offer still stands if you need a Pashtun point of view, call me – I also happen to be a Precinct Chair for the Democrats.

    April 26, 2009 at 7:55 am |
  3. J Young

    Dirty bombs should be our biggest fear. With the direction our current administration is taking us, I fear it will be an enemy within that will use it to sway public policy. Welcome to the new reality show...24.

    April 25, 2009 at 11:44 pm |
  4. larry mccoy

    man, did al gore nail that stupid representative of all we hold dear ! one thousand years ago humanity believed the sun orbited the earth. five hundred years ago the earth was flat. galileo was almost burned at the stake. i can think of a few congress persons past and present who deserve a good roasting. newt, go away. i have a particular place in pakistan that is just right for you.

    April 25, 2009 at 10:55 pm |
  5. mac

    the taliban wants the nukes so they can teach the other countries what will happen. its like the saying; obey and live disobey and die.

    terrorists are the same worldwide, they have their originality, american, muslem, iranian, and others. the problem is along the way they lose this and become all together something new, TERRORIST.

    they dont care about people, countries, lives or anything else. they want to kill and thats their only hope of survival. nothing else matters not even their own lives.

    these terrorists you have to kill completely, no hostages. sounds a little hard, well if you dont and they get their way, they will destory the world.

    nukes in the hands of terrorists you can kiss the u.s. and other supporting countries good bye forever.

    kill them all fast, forget human rights. the terrorists dont have rights as this is choice they have made.

    terrorists dont give rights to any one else, why should we be respectful of their rights.

    April 25, 2009 at 9:22 pm |
  6. Terry, TX

    Mr. Foreman...you are absolutely right....anybody listening out there...however with the big breach in security we are now involved in... ....breached by the highest level in govt...what confidence do you think our armed forces, intel agencies, even our allies have now.

    April 25, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  7. tony brooks

    Why isn't there more concern about this Pakistani issue?It is obvious that the taliban is preparing for an attack on Pakistan.The US can't afford to allow this to happen.Where is the U.N. ?

    April 25, 2009 at 10:05 am |
  8. denise silverman

    why would we even want them to come close? Something should be done to stop those hateful bastards

    April 25, 2009 at 9:14 am |
  9. m.a qadeer

    far from truth,out of 350.000 sq.mile of pakistan,taliban hold 10,000 mile area under control,majority of normal pakistanis(whom you never see on cnn) in karachi,lahore or peshawar are modest muslims who disagree with taliban s interpretation of Islam,taliban are ethnic pushtoons whose tribal religous culture persisted for centuries despite invasions, they wants to implement their values in areas where they live,they do not have any global agenda nor they are capable of nukes,messing up this understanding can create civil war in Pakistan that enemies of Pakistan wants,Pakistan civil society & people fully understands it . Creating a havoc in western media will not serve nascent democracy in Pakistan.

    April 25, 2009 at 3:20 am |
  10. bashir

    Pakistani population is not just tired of Taliban effect on Pakistan in general, but they are also fed up with Pakistani government’s inconsistency in governance.

    When the governmental structure fails to provide basic necessities, and when a democratic system is a failure − anarchism or authoritarianism dominates. Vagaries in U.S. foreign policy and our support to corrupt leaders, such as, President Zardari, the Pakistani population has realized not to count on either its Government or foreign assistance.

    U.S. has been focused on its own needs. After President Musharraf, we continued to support the leaders that we believed will be conducive to U.S. interest while disregarding indigenous unpopular support to President Musharraf and President Zardari.

    We have long ignored that when we support corrupt leaders Pakistani population think of U.S. to the same extent as they think of Talibans. While the Talibans are devastating Pakistan through direct action, the U.S. is destroying Pakistan’s economic and social structure in an indirect way.

    Our support to President Zardari must stop; we must reassess. In order for us to create local support we need to launch local programs. We should fund education, we should give grants to the hospitals, we should provide support to moderates who are willing to fight against Talibanism. We must support NGO who have courage and willingness to go on the streets to gain support against Taliban’s influence. We need to create jobs in Pakistan to keep future generation away from Madressahs. We need to stop giving economic support to the government of Pakistan unless they are willing to play to our rules.

    If we want Rule of Law in Pakistan, we need to support those leaders that have our value and moral worth. Evolution in a Rule of Law will never come unless we shed our interest and focus on long-term survival of the major institutions in Pakistan’s socio-economic structure.

    April 25, 2009 at 3:09 am |
  11. joey c

    just like cambodia, polpot & the camar rouge. when places get overcrowded, differences in lifestyles are difficult for some people to deal with. brash bullying leaders always all for uniformity & conformity. sound familiar?

    April 25, 2009 at 2:36 am |
  12. Mike

    if India would reduce pressure on Pakistan by moving their troops away from the pakistani border, the pakistani government would be able to send most of its army to fight the Taliban, instead of waiting along the Indian border.

    April 25, 2009 at 1:55 am |
  13. Faisal

    Here is the problem with Pakistan. Economy is in dump. Country is being run by theifs. Government is not solution, especially the one that is in power. The only way this issue can be resolved, is by military. Local Pakistani people, especially in the cities are only worried about how can they make living and bring food to the table. And to be honest with you they are scared about this situation. The only entity who can take care of this situation is pakistani military. We should support the pakistani military with an oversight.

    April 25, 2009 at 12:02 am |
  14. sandy

    Most people don't remember how close to failure Musharraf was just before 9/11. I just fell over when Bush embraced Pakistan as an "ally" in the "war on terror". The truth was, when Bush was setting up the Iraq war, he wanted air support operations out of Turkey, and they told him to kiss off, which no one ever seems to remember. The only place he could run air support operations for the Iraq war out of was Pakistan so a deal was made. The US gave them money to aid their efforts against terrorists, which have been nil, and we had a nuclear armed military dictator as an ally to defeat a dictator who presented no threat to us or the region, however cruel a creep Hussein may have been. Now look where we are. Almost 2 years ago the Pakistan army, tired of regularly getting peppered by attacks by the Taliban began abandoning their western border with Afghanistan, and I said then that this day was coming, because that whole thing was blown off by the US entirely. President Bush and his administration and US foreign policy have put everyone in a very perilous position now. If Pakistan falls, we will find ourselves in a full blown regional all out have-to-reinstate-the-draft sized war, with control of nuclear weapons and Bin Laden thrown in for good measure. Pakistan has made me squirrely for years, and now just scares me to death. Yeah Dick. You guys have kept us really safe.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:58 pm |
  15. Vicki Marshall

    I would think that everyone would see what the position of the Taliban is in being so close to the Afghan border and use the Pakistani Army on one end and the American Army on the other end and get them caught between them.

    Maybe that could cut down on the Taliban fighters. It's something to think about and talk about.

    Vicki Marshall

    April 24, 2009 at 11:45 pm |
  16. Paul Yomsi

    United states need to think about Iran during the rise of Khomeny and make sure that the threat of Taliban doesn't spread further.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:41 pm |
  17. rkamran

    It was said in the story earlier that a notice in Arabic was written on a barber shop. It wasn't Arabic it was Urdu. Integrity of the story is really damaged if these kinda fundamental mistakes are made.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:36 pm |
  18. karen

    get rid of the taliban dah? why would a country want these idiots in thier country? make me wear a tent, tell me i cant go to school, etc. i would not live there anylonger. why would there even be a descusion on this subject of extremists. get rid of them, they are 60 miles from the capitol, hey x marks the spot bomb bomb and bomb.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:35 pm |
  19. Pervez Siddiqui

    I love your show and watch it religously.
    I am an American of Pakistani descent and I talk very frequently to my family still in Pakistan. The majority of the middle class in Pakistan is vehemently opposed to the Taliban style extremism.
    People are frustrated and angry at the Government and the Army for their lack of action and a lack of cohesive policy as to how to confront them.
    It seems that there is a lack of political will and a lack of leadership in Pakistan. There seems to be a lot of blame going around even against the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif for staying mum. It seems that he is covertly supporting the religous right and is afraid of criticizing or taking a stand against the Taliban.
    People think that this blatant action by the Taliban would not have happened if Pervez Mussharraf was around only because he is a strong Army leader and he would have certainly moved faster unilaterally.
    The Army cannot be blamed because they are confused by the lack of political will and a national malaise and apathy to this whole situation.
    The Army must act now and with lightening speed to throw out the Taliban from the Swat area or else you will see a military coup by some young officers who are restless at this inaction.
    It is the older Generals who are dragging their feet because they are fearful of their own lives.
    America must help financially to help the poor and provide support to the grass root as the lower and lower middle class does not trust America because they have seen historically that America does not think long term.
    Taliban is nothing but a local Mafia and they only understand violence.
    These Taliban do not even understand Islam.
    We have to see where they are getting financial support from.
    Saudi Arabia, India, Russia are helping financially as it has been reported and the situation has gotten very complicated.
    Keep up your good work Anderson as always.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:03 pm |
  20. bob

    dear anderson

    upon watching this evening's taliban story,your guest at the end said "we"(the united states) needed to provide more aid to pakistan in order for that country to combat the taliban . my question is this..."why us?"
    why not the british,french,aussies,germans,finns,peruvians etc etc etc? we are hated the world over but not when we are "needed". why are our military's lives less important than other countries? enough of this. send in nato troops. or close the u.n.

    April 24, 2009 at 10:44 pm |
  21. rickfromdetroit

    The Taliban moving in on Pakistan sounds like a serious situation, but what do we do about it? We have troops there, I guess we provide security to the Pakistan Capital and their military installations. Any one have a better idea?

    April 24, 2009 at 10:37 pm |
  22. kenneth51

    sometime in the near future this whole middle east situtation will finally get settled,war, famine, peace will come in that oders, and if by chance the usa is still poking it nose and values where there not wanted, hey democracy is not for every nation on earth,so if they don't want it ,leave welll enough alone, let'em stay in the dark ages. and struggle a best they can, all the while we protect wht is ours, and if it means taking out a counrty that threates our way of life so be it

    April 24, 2009 at 8:06 pm |
  23. EARL

    It is looking more likely that success in Afghanistan may get eaasier because there is a better bigger prize for the Taliban (Pakistan). Which will have a bigger inpact to the world. So full steam ahead on Afghanistan.

    April 24, 2009 at 8:03 pm |
  24. Tomasz

    More fearmongering?

    CNN has offices in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I presume.

    Why doesn't CNN give the Taliban a camera or set out to interview the Taliban about what they want.

    Instead you want to fearmonger.

    April 24, 2009 at 7:25 pm |
  25. Sean Bell

    If the U.S. managed to construct a nuclear weapon from scratch using 1940's technology, I'm betting the Taliban would have little trouble finding the requisite talent to assemble a few of those Pakistani nukes today! They seem to have a knack for finding recruits with advanced degrees...

    BTW, I've been trying not to think about the Taliban armed with portable nuclear weapons, so thanks for that!

    April 24, 2009 at 7:16 pm |
  26. Tim in Columbus, Ohio

    This is great! Which option should we choose......nuclear incineration courtesy of the Taliban or a pandemic from the new flu courtesy of Mexico?

    April 24, 2009 at 7:06 pm |
  27. lavan

    This ppl are playing with nukes ,
    see this look like pakistan is ready to surrender or hand over to taliban , dam it this is very danger situation . for eg pakistan has army on the indian border to fight indian army , but whats happening here pakistan army is spreading red carpet there

    April 24, 2009 at 5:34 pm |