Half a world away from Belgium, terror and death have hit another American ally and where the stakes are even higher. This time, the target was Pakistan — a suicide bomb ripping through a Christian Easter celebration in the heart of Lahore, capital city of the Punjab, killing scores, wounding hundreds. It was a powerful and direct message to Pakistan, which unlike Belgium, likely has the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal.
The message to the nation’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from a faction of the Pakistani Talban, who quickly claimed responsibility for the attack in his home base of Lahore, was simple and direct. “He can do what he wants, but he will not stop us,” said Ehsanullah Ehsan. a group spokesman.
It was as clear evidence as possible that the Taliban is determined to destabilize, even topple the government or nudge it away from its pro-American position into one more favorable to the radicals’ toxic agenda. The 20 pounds of explosives packed around quantities of ball bearings were designed to maximize the lethal footprint of the blast. And the fact that it took place Southeast of Islamabad, far from Taliban strongholds along the Afghan frontier suggests its ability to work its will as it pleases.
The danger for America is that such a move comes against a background of deeply troubling activity in a region that itself is teetering on the brink of profound unrest. It was, after all, in Pakistan, where an American Navy SEAL team located and terminated Osama bin Laden. It is also Pakistan where the Taliban and other tribal forces maintain their back offices and arms depots for their immediate aim of overthrowing the American-backed regime in neighboring Afghanistan.
They are waiting — for the American withdrawal and at the same time for a more accomodating attitude among the leadership of Pakistan toward their wants and needs.
The danger is that such wants and needs could extend into the arsenal of nuclear arms that Pakistan is expanding at breakneck sped. Already, its nuclear stockpile has passed neighboring India’s — 120 to 100 in terms of deployed warheads. This is a fraction of the numbers maintained by the United States and Russia. But at its current pace, Pakistan’s arsenal could balloon to 350 in the next decade — placing it third in the world, ahead of China, Britain or France. According to the Carnegie Endowment, Pakistan has enough highly enriched uranium to continue the buildup all but unchecked.
“The growth path of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, enabled by existing infrastructure, goes well beyond the assurances of credible minimal deterrence provided by Pakistani officials and analysts after testing nuclear devices,” the report concludes.
That leaves some frightening potential. Most of the new weapons are “low yield,” effectively tactical nuclear weapons, easily deployed — to vast and lethal effect — on isolated battlefields. Or, for that matter, carried in a suitcase into the heart of a city. Indeed, the Carnegie report does raise directly the prospects of “a risky strategy that would place weapons that are the least safe and secure close to the forward edge of battle — a battle that could be triggered by actions taken by extremist groups.”
This must be at least one aim of a multi-pronged campaign by the Taliban, with Sunday’s massacre only the latest skirmish. But it is clearly an aim that should have Washington deeply worried. A suggestion of the depth of this concern was the statement, issued immediately after news reached the White House. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price suggested, “We will continue to work with our partners in Pakistan and across the region, as together we will be unyielding in our efforts to root out the scourge of terrorism.”
Just how effective such an effort might be should become a central focus in the calculus of when and in what fashion to pull American forces out of Afghanistan and leave a nuclear armed-up region to its own devices.