Dealing With Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons During the Afghanistan Withdrawal

Now that President Obama has decided to end the surge in Afghanistan by late next year, and to bring the troops home by 2014, a clear vision about the American military presence in the region has begun to emerge. Yet paradoxically, the most stunning success of our operations in the region – the killing of Osama bin Laden – has exposed an even more serious potential menace: the insecurity of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

This insecurity, starkly illustrated by this morning’s Washington Post expose on A.Q. Khan’s transfer of nuclear technology to North Korea in the late 1990’s, makes it essential for the United States to have an effective strategy for pulling our troops out of Afghanistan that simultaneously prevents an increase nuclear insecurity in South and Central Asia.

This is going to be a steep challenge, as many of the underlying sources of conflict and tension in South and Central Asia will remain after an American withdrawal. In a region that has deep experience on nuclear matters -- with nuclear aspirant Iran bordering Afghanistan on one side and nuclear-armed Pakistan and India on the other -- the United States must take all of these complexities into account.

Specifically, the United States must take care to leave stable systems and relationships in place during the Afghanistan drawdown; failure to do so could exacerbate historic regional tensions and potentially create new national security risks.

It is therefore essential that Washington create a comprehensive nuclear security strategy for the region as part of its Afghanistan withdrawal plans. We have only to look to our recent history of failures in the region to understand the importance of this approach.

For instance, in the 1980s, the U.S. supported the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. When that conflict ended, we withdrew, only to see the rise of al-Qaeda - and its resultant international terrorism - in the 1990s because we didn't pull out responsibly from Afghanistan.

Our decisions now about Afghanistan will determine the shape of our security challenges in the region for the foreseeable future. And we can't allow nuclear weapons to become to South and Central Asia in the 21st century what al-Qaeda was in the 1990s to Afghanistan. To avoid such an outcome, several key objectives must be included in any Afghanistan withdrawal plan.

First, historic regional insecurities - which are already extremely high - will continue to drive tensions, and quite possibly conflict, amongst the regional powers. Therefore, we must ensure the implementation of a regional approach to military withdrawal. These efforts must bring all relevant regional players to the table, particularly the nuclear and potentially nuclear states. Iran and all the countries bordering Afghanistan must be part of this discussion.

Second, the United States must be mindful to not leave a governance vacuum inside Afghanistan. While it is clear that the current counter-insurgency policy being pursued in Afghanistan is not working at a pace that meets either Western or Afghan aspirations, it is essential that Afghanistan not be allowed to implode. We do not need 100,000 troops to do this, and as the Afghanistan Study Group has recommended, credible political negotiations that emphasize power-sharing and political reconciliation must take place to keep the country intact while the United States moves out.

Third, while the rationale for our presence in Afghanistan - to defeat al-Qaeda - has dissipated, a major security concern justifying our continued involvement in the region - potential nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan - will remain and may actually increase in its severity. It is crucial that we keep a particularly close eye on these programs to ensure that all is done to prevent the illicit transfer or ill use of nuclear weapons. The U.S. must maximize its military and intelligence relationships with these countries and facilitate diplomatic engagement between them to continue to both understand their nuclear intentions and help prevent potential conflict. We must avoid a situation where any minor misunderstanding or even terrorist act, as happened in Mumbai in 2008, does not set off escalating tensions that lead to a nuclear exchange.

The day is fast approaching that the U.S. will be out of Afghanistan. While this is the right goal, it is crucial that the drawdown is handled in a manner that promotes regional stability and cooperation – not a power vacuum that could foster tension and conflict. A comprehensive strategy to enhance regional security, maintain a stable Afghanistan, and keep a watchful eye on Pakistan and India is therefore essential. Taking such steps will help us to depart Afghanistan in a responsible manner, one that protects our security interests while dealing with the deep strategic insecurities of a region that has the greatest risk of nuclear conflict in the world.

Joel Rubin is the Director of Policy and Government Affairs at Ploughshares Fund.

The Huffington Post