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The Afghan Taliban’s Nuclear Umbrella

How the Afghan Taliban came to rely on Pakistan, and what it means for Iran and North Korea.

Words: Phil Walter
Pictures: Union of Concerned Scientists

On May 11, 1966, the 11-member executive committee of India’s ruling congress party called for India to begin work on nuclear weapons to counter the threat of the People’s Republic of China. In 1974 India tested its first nuclear bomb. In December 1971, Pakistan lost East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to India in a war, and one month later Pakistan’s government decided to begin a secret nuclear weapons program. Pakistan acquired the capability to detonate a nuclear explosive device between 1984 and 1985.

In December 1979, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) invaded Afghanistan.

Two weeks later, US President James Carter allocated $30 million to support the Afghan resistance fighting the USSR. US President Ronald Reagan increased this amount and by 1987, with matching funds from Saudi Arabia, the Afghan resistance received approximately $630 million annually. US support for the Afghan resistance flowed through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which used its position to promote Pakistani interests. US efforts supporting the Afghan resistance were successful, and the USSR departed Afghanistan on February 15, 1989. The departure of the USSR and subsequent failure of the government of Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah contributed to the rise of the Afghan Taliban who, with Pakistani support, assumed control of Afghanistan in 1996.

During the time the Afghan Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they permitted Osama bin Laden and his violent extremist group al-Qaeda to establish a safe haven there. It is this Afghan Taliban-supplied safe haven that provided Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda the freedom to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks. Following the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda fled, and the US and its allies and partners have been attempting to stabilize Afghanistan ever since. According to faculty research conducted at the Harvard Kennedy School, since the war in Afghanistan began, the United States has spent trillions of dollars on efforts there. These efforts entailed committing as few as 2,500 to as many as 98,000 US armed forces members, of whom 2,216 have died, and 20,049 have been wounded.

Thanks to Pakistan’s continued support, the Afghan Taliban remain a potent fighting force. As of May 2017, the Afghan Taliban controls 11 districts and influences 34 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts (approximately 11 percent). In addition to funding, Pakistan provides the Afghan Taliban physical safe havens from which to operate. It is in Pakistan’s interest to continue to support the Afghan Taliban for a variety of reasons, including the ability to respond to an Indian invasion, guarantee safe haven for Islamist proxies that Pakistan supports, prevent India from projecting power in South Asia, and obstruct India’s ability to support separatists in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.

All of the preceding puts the United States and its allies and partners operating in Afghanistan in a precarious position. As of this writing, US President Donald Trump agrees with former US President Barack Obama in believing that the US must stay the course in Afghanistan to ensure the Afghan Taliban do not assume power, which would contribute to Afghanistan once again becoming a safe haven for violent extremist organizations like al-Qaeda. However, the US cannot depend on the Government of Pakistan to locate, close with, and destroy the Afghan Taliban safe havens within its own borders. And despite US success in pressuring its enemies in limited wars through major cross-border offensive operations in the Korean War, Vietnam War, and the First Gulf War, similar options are seemingly not available in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

Of note in US cross-border offensive operations in limited wars is that North Korea, Cambodia (used as a safe haven by North Vietnam), and Iraq did not have nuclear weapons when the US crossed into their respective territories. If the US wanted to move from Afghanistan into Pakistan to destroy Afghan Taliban safe havens and pressure the Afghan Taliban into peace negotiations, the presence of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would have to be part of the US calculus. While opinions vary regarding Pakistan’s ability to secure its nuclear arsenal, the fact remains that in such a case as the one I’ve just described, the Afghan Taliban is operating under a nuclear-armed Pakistani guarantee to come to its defense, which, in effect, is a nuclear umbrella.

It can be argued that the Afghan Taliban, operating under a nuclear umbrella provided by Pakistan, are similar to other movements such as the Ukrainian Separatists, who operate under a nuclear umbrella provided by Russia. While there are many factors that contribute to the inability of the US and its allies and partners to succeed in Afghanistan, significant among these factors is a traditional military task of locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy. While destroying the enemy is key to any successful military campaign, as long as the Afghan Taliban are permitted by a nuclear-armed Pakistan to maintain safe havens in their sovereign territory, and the US and its allies and partners refrain from attacking due to nuclear weapons concerns, the conflict will, at best, continue to be a stalemate.

Since fear of China drove India’s nuclear weapons program which, in turn, motivated Pakistan to follow suit, and it is highly unlikely that any of these states will give up their nuclear arsenals, a permanent stalemate in Afghanistan is fait accompli. Observing the ways in which nuclear-armed states can limit US policy options, pondering what additional instability a nuclear-armed Iran could sow as its umbrella would protect the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps exporting revolution, or North Korea as its umbrella enables it to further threaten South Korea, Japan, and the US, is a worthy effort.

Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not contain information of an official nature. He can be found on Twitter @philwalter1058 and his personal website is

Phil Walter

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