A Nuclear Threat from the Taliban?

Air Date: September 21, 2021

MIT Professor of Nuclear Security Vipin Narang discusses the global buildup of nuclear weapons and legacy of mutual assured destruction.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Vipin Narang. He is the newly inaugurated Frank Stanton professor of nuclear security and political science at MIT. It’s a distinct pleasure to welcome him today. Thanks so much for your time, Vipin.

 

NARANG: Thanks, Alexander. It’s great to be here and I appreciate the kind words.

 

HEFFNER: Let’s start with Afghanistan. There obviously is turmoil that many anticipated for two decades, as soon as the American presence would be returned. But there is this question about the security of the region now that the Taliban is in full control, it appears.

 

NARANG: Right.

 

HEFFNER: … of Afghanistan and questions about potentially the Taliban and the new Afghanistan government having access to nuclear weapons in the region and what that could mean. So I want to ask you first, if that’s an accurate assessment, that this is something we should be concerned about, fearful of and if so, what might they have access to that they did not have access to, you know, before our operation there after 9/11?

 

NARANG: So, first of all, thanks for having me. I think the situation in Afghanistan is a terrible tragedy for the people of Afghanistan. It is a pretty humiliating exit for the United States. We, I mean, withdrawal was inevitable. But I think the speed with which the Taliban recaptured the entirety of the state and particularly Kabul stunned everyone, you know, around the world. And, you know, it’s a very important question about sort of the, about the regional security architecture now, because the Taliban’s greatest sort of ally and support in the region is Pakistan, which is itself a nuclear weapons power. And in the late 1990s, the last time there was a Taliban government, there were rumors and some evidence that the Taliban was interested in potentially, you know, stationing or hosting Pakistani nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. And we don’t know how serious those conversations were between the Taliban and Pakistan. That was at a time when Pakistan was not you know, a partner in the war on terror, but, you know, back to the future, we’re in exactly essentially the same situation going forward now than we were prior to 9/11. I don’t think the Taliban can have the capability to develop its own nuclear weapons. So really the only question is, or scenario, is if there was a world in which Pakistan decides it needs some sort of strategic depth from India in order to deploy its nuclear weapons, with the help of the Taliban, or whether in a very unlikely scenario, because this has never happened in the history of the nuclear era, Pakistan essentially decides to share its nuclear weapons with the Taliban. I generally discount that scenario because, you know, a state that outsources the security of its own nuclear weapons puts itself sort of in the cross hairs, if anything goes wrong. And there will be hell to pay if there was a single Pakistani based or sourced nuclear weapon that was ever advertently or inadvertently used out of its control.

 

So I think the possibility is low. But you know, there is sort of, you know, when you look at the regional security architecture now, 20 years after 9/11, we’re back to square one, where Pakistan and the ISI is the dominant sort of strategic player in the region and has sort of, you know, some sort of control and ally in the Taliban in Afghanistan.

 

HEFFNER: You mentioned two possible scenarios, but one that I would flesh out a little bit more is the black market. And I mean, this was considered the principal threat after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The idea that a rogue state or a decentralized terrorist network would get access to nuclear weapons. I mean, it was the pretext for Iraq, in effect, after some success eradicating Al Qaeda and Taliban. And obviously it was a very measured success, and it was not one that was durable. What is the scenario of these third-party rogue actors in Afghanistan or elsewhere getting access to nuclear weapons on the black market now, has it increased in the 20 years since 9/11 or declined?

 

NARANG: I mean, it’s increased simply for the very reason that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow largely what Pakistan would claim in response to the Indian threat. India’s arsenal and security architecture has sort of been shaped in the last couple of years by what it perceives to be a dual threat from its larger neighbor, China, as well as Pakistan. And so you have the sort of alleyway of conventional competition and nuclear arms racing, which has led Pakistan for fear of sort of the Indian threat, to increase the size and diversity of its arsenal. And, you know, the domestic political situation in Pakistan, the army tends to be the dominant player and has been for decades, but it’s not necessarily the case that a decade from now, the army will have the same sort of dominant position as you have sort of militant organizations, domestic political competition, and the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal becomes a concern, as its arsenal has grown, just simple accounting for the fissile material, the material used to go into nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons themselves becomes more difficult.

 

And so is it a zero probability if you were to ask me in the next 10 to 20 years is it a zero probability that you know, the Pakistan army, which some scholars of Pakistan, of which, you know, I’m peripheral to, but some scholars of Pakistan have argued becoming more radicalized you know, doesn’t lose a nuclear weapon or have elements within the army that may be sympathetic to the Taliban, that it may decide to share a weapon or transfer a weapon? It’s not a zero. Do I think it’s a high probability? No, but it’s not a zero probability as long as the weapons exist and continue to expand and improve and diversify accounting becomes a real problem. And the security of those forces is always volt. Even, even the United States goes through a very stringent and rigorous personnel reliability, you know, material management process, and it’s not foolproof. So, you know, this is always a risk. And as the arsenals have grown, I think the risk only grows as we go down there and there are other sort of structural features, which have led Pakistan to take more risky deployment patterns and increase the size of the arsenal, which have increased risks also.

 

HEFFNER: But your answer suggests that there is not much by way of nuclear technology or weaponry in the hands of those third parties on the black market right now.

 

NARANG: I think it’s, yeah, I mean, in the last 20 years, there has been a very strong international and U.S. lead effort to really sort of clamp down on you know, sort of fissile material accounting, and it can always improve. But we have the Proliferation Security Initiative you know, there’s, there’s also sort of the, you know, the, the incentive nuclear powers have to not trade on the black market because they put themselves in the crosshairs, if anything goes wrong. But the two primary, you know, there, there are several, but the three primary you know nuclear powers of concern for black markets are North Korea, Pakistan, and initially Russia, although Russia, there is a lot of effort to secure Russia’s fissile material. And I think all three have improved. North Korea no longer, I think as a maturing nuclear weapons power has, you know, there isn’t evidence of sort of the black market trade that they’ve engaged in, in the past, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t engage in the future if sort of, they feel, you know, Kim Jong-un feels sanctioned to the point that he needs to make cash. And this could be very lucrative. You know, it was in the, we forget that in 2000 in the mid 2000’s, North Korea essentially helped Syria build a replica of the North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria, which the Israelis then bombed in the 2000’s you know, under the nose of the Israelis and the Americans. And so North Korea has been a bad actor in this scenario in the past, of third states, but this, I think this notion that a militant group like Al-Qaeda, or you know, the Taliban will become a state, but Al-Qaeda could get a nuclear weapon was harder in the past, but the risk persists and cumulates over time. And I think it’s something that we shouldn’t discount because there may be sympathetic actors in these states that have nuclear weapons to transfer those weapons, especially if there’s no sort of attribution back to sort of the source.

 

HEFFNER: Historically I could think of figures in American political life who were deeply committed to anti-proliferation: Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar, the giants in the space. They’re not with us anymore. I think Nunn is still alive, but Nunn is obviously not in the Senate anymore. Lugar is passed on. I can’t think of the American political interest in this issue, at least in the public sphere as being particularly strong today. I don’t know if that’s an accurate statement or not, but I wonder, you know, to get a sense of the landscape in America right now, who is the Nunn or Luger of this era?

 

NARANG: Yeah, no, that’s a very good point. And I think it reflects sort of the dis the difference today from the end of the cold war. The end of the cold war, there was sort of this moment right there where, you know, there was a recognition that it was in American interest to reduce the number of deployed weapons in both Russia and the United States, and then you could achieve strategic stability because these were the two largest nuclear powers. China’s arsenal was a fraction of the size of the U.S. and Russia. And it was an opportunity to sort of, you know, secure and constrain the forces of both which was in our interest and also in Russia’s interest, which had, you know, trouble managing, you know, the size of his nuclear force as it sort of retrenched and collapsed. But you’re right, that now we’re in a different era where there is, we have, you know, several, there’s been a confluence of several sort of events over the past decade that I think mark a distinct nuclear era from the end of the cold war, where we have returned to an era of great power, arms racing. Russia, and the United States are modernizing their nuclear forces, Russia investing in a whole suite of new capabilities. China’s force is expanding for the first time in decades. And, you know, just recently we’ve, we’ve had sort of this slow trickle of leaks about huge number of silo fields that China is building very quickly, right, since the beginning of this year which heralds the possibility of that China may be, you know, rapidly increasing its nuclear and missile force. Now, just because you build the silos, it doesn’t mean you have the missiles or the nuclear weapons yet, but it’s sort of like China’s field of dreams. If you build it, they will come. And so we have a new sort of, we have a renewed great power arms race. And so there, isn’t sort of that Nunn, Lugar voice anywhere in the center, the left or the right to say that, you know, treaties that other parties have no interest in abiding by, for example, the INF treaty, which the Trump administration pulled out of, but which Russia had been violating unilaterally since the Obama administration. The Obama administration recognized and tried to put pressure on Russia to comply with the treaty. The Trump administration said, what’s the point of a bilateral treaty if one side is just violating it completely. So they decided to formally exit, and there isn’t a lot of support for, for example, even if the New Start Treaty was extended by the Biden ministration when they came into office, but there are real questions about the durability and sustainability of a bilateral arms control treaty that limits Russian and U.S. deployments, if China continues to sprint up and build. And that’s why there were calls for shorter this trilateral or multi-party strategic arms treaty. But, you know, I think we’re in a different era and we see, you know, North Korea got out of the barn, the first state adversarial to the United States, since China, to successfully develop, you know, thermo nuclear ICBM capability that can hit the United States. And a lot of this is happening around the same time at the great power level. And it’s not there, you don’t have sort of the Nunn, Lugar moment that we had at the end of the cold war. And then you layer on top of that sort of these regional issues like India and Pakistan, the slow burn of Iran, right? I think the Iranian nuclear program is going to be something that the world sort of deals with for the foreseeable future, because the opportunity to sort of get back into the Iran nuclear deal, the so-called JCPOA sort of pass by until the Iranian presidential elections. And there isn’t a lot of optimism, I think that we will return to something that was as stringent as a JCPOA, which means Iran is going to have sort of a nuclear hedge for the foreseeable future, which has triggered hedges in Saudi Arabia and in Turkey, the UAE potentially, you know, and so you have regional dynamics, which are very unstable. And so you’re not seeing the sort of appetite for calls for nuclear reductions at the great power level.

 

HEFFNER: As an expert in this arena, do you want it off the radar? I mean, are you concerned that it’s off the American consciousness and its radar, or does that not matter to you?

 

NERANG: No, I mean, I think it’s it, it, the, at some point you’d never want nuclear weapons on the front page of a newspaper because it’s never good news if anything, about nuclear weapons is on the front page of the New York Times. So, you know, I, I think are sort of there’s sort of a complacency that can set in. It set in at the end of the cold war. I mean, this is sort of a personal story in my case when I was doing my PhD, everyone said, don’t study nuclear weapons. That era is over, we’re in, you know, an, an era of secular decline of nuclear weapons. Everyone’s reducing their arsenals. You don’t have the threat of nuclear proliferation. But you know, we had lost a generation of sort of people who study nuclear weapons.

 

And I think part of Frank Stanton’s mission, part of our mission at MIT is to train the next generation of scholars and analysts and policymakers to manage this problem so that it doesn’t show up on the front page of the New York Times, right? So long as nuclear weapons exist, we’re going to need people to study them, to manage them and to think about them. I’m realistic enough to think, and to believe that it is probably not possible to put the genie back in the bottle. We are probably not going to see the elimination of nuclear weapons anytime in our lifetimes. Once the technology exists, it becomes sort of, the challenge is how do you manage them, right? In a way that, you know, makes them sort of safe, secure, and off the headlines in the background, so they’re never used advertently or inadvertently. And I think that’s a real challenge that has only increased since the end of the cold war, but we have a mark lack of capability because people aren’t working on them anymore, aren’t studying them anymore in the way that they did during the cold war. And so I think it’s really important that we have people who work and think about them so that they stay off the front page.

 

HEFFNER: Based on your answer. I think it’s fair to say that in the historical consciousness of Americans, our foreparents, our forefathers and mothers, and to this contemporary generation, you have World War II, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and you have Pearl Harbor you know, the inspiring events in which we were compelled to enter the war, but you really have Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I mean, you really don’t have anything else as a kind of formative understanding of the consequence of nuclear weaponry. And, and you’re saying, well, it’s a positive development that the kind of mutually assured destruction attitude, you know, if we were to use those weapons which is probably, you know, at least in part what influenced the non-event of the Cuban Missile Crisis, you know, missiles were not fired.

 

NARANG: Right.

 

HEFFNER: So I guess it’s a positive thing that the perception of mutually assured destruction has actually held up. I mean, there, there are, maybe there hasn’t been amnesia or forgetfulness about that. That that’s how we continue to live with, with nuclear weapons.

 

NARANG: I mean, to some degree that’s right. I mean, but I will say this with all due respect to the, those scholars and policymakers who you know lived through the cold war. They had it easy. They had one adversary who also had an interest in strategic stability, in nuclear weapons not being used. And we’re in an era now where all the rules of the cold war don’t apply. We opened this discussion with, you know, a conversation about the Taliban potentially having access to Pakistani nuclear weapons. Cold war security managers, never had to deal with that. We’re talking about a slow burn in Iran. We’re talking about North Korea, we’re talking about multipolar nuclear competition, Russia, China, and the United States as pure competitors. The challenges today far exceed, I think, the challenges during the cold and the cold war sort of had this small risk of global annihilation.

 

But I think we today have a much higher risk of limited nuclear use, of one nuclear weapon or two nuclear weapons being used in South Asia or the middle east or in east Asia. And there’s sort of this notion that, oh, if one goes off, then, you know, we’ll, we’ll just put the genie back in the bottle. But there’s also a concern that once you’ve crossed that threshold, you don’t know where it’s going to end. And I think that we, there are the public and the national media for the most part, sort of have become too comfortable with this idea of mutually assured destruction and the sort of the, there’s a complacency, because that really rests on two actors having an interest in the same thing. And we’re not in that world anymore.

 

HEFFNER: I listen to you and I’m getting nervous because this is the pandemic experience.

 

NARANG: Right.

 

HEFFNER: The idea that we knew that the events of the Spanish Flu, and earlier pandemic would repeat themselves, and we were not at all prepared and studied in that. And I, and I hear the same warning in what you’re expressing that there is actually potential of some kind of annihilating act, whether it is annihilating the whole planet, may be less likely now, because it, because these weapons could be deployed on a micro level until that macro event.

 

NARANG: Right. When we talk about WMDs in the experience of modern history, we again go back to the atomic bomb, atomic bombs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of it in the, in the missile crisis. When we talk about the effect of nuclear or chemical weapons and the public’s exposure to them, correct me if I’m wrong, but really the most obvious examples of their deployment would be Syria, chemical weapons during the Assad regime. You know, the tests out of North Korea, China, Russia, often violating international protocol and agreements. And then, if we’re talking about nuclear technology causing unrest or injury to populations, look at the earthquake and resulting deaths in Japan as a result of

the breakdown of the nuclear plants there. So, I mean, that’s kind of like recent history in the last decade or so, is there anything I’m missing?

 

NARANG: Well, so I think there have been, there have been crises that we don’t pay a lot of attention to. For example, India and Pakistan in 2019 got in a shooting war shooting, you know, sort of event, it wasn’t a war shooting. You know, the Indian air force bombed the sovereign territory of Pakistan for the first time in the nuclear era, you know, you had a nuclear power bombing, another nuclear power that never happened before. And they walked away from that crisis. The Balakot crisis you know, after an Indian air force plane had been shot down after there’s a friendly fire incident, there was a pilot that was captured. There were threats of more missile strikes, and both sides walk away from the crisis thinking, you know, they walked away because of their own skill and not because of luck. And there is sort of this growing, you know, emboldenment that states have, nuclear states have, that they can continue to push the line without escalate, without escalating you know, without an event going off-course without sort of, you know, bad luck spinning them into a deeper crisis. Like what if the Indian pilot had died when the plane was shot down? What if he’d died in Pakistani custody? Iran shot ballistic missiles at U.S. personnel in Iraq. What if they had killed U.S., you know, U.S. forces. And so there’s sort of this belief that states walk away from these crises and the Cuban missile crisis because of skill and not luck. But then you ask yourself, how many times are you willing to rerun the Cuban missile crisis? I think if you rerun it 10 times, you see a much worst outcome, Eight out of 10 times, right? So just because you observed the one time you got lucky doesn’t mean you’re going to keep getting lucky. And I think that complacency is not just infecting sort of the public and scholars, but also states and leaders who think, you know, we can, we can fire missiles at another nuclear power. We did it in the past and nothing went wrong, but I wouldn’t want to keep rerunning that too long.

 

HEFFNER: So there is definitely something faulty in the mindset right now in presuming that the status quo will be free of,

 

NARANG: It’s indefinite, right.

 

HEFFNER: That kind of multiplying tension that could create an act of emboldenment, like you said, and deployment in a nuclear arsenal. Let’s close on China, Russia, North Korea, but, but really China and North Korea, because they are the newest of this club. Is there any way to tell with intelligence, based on the satellite visuals that we have, what the intention of their newer nuclear activity is, specifically China with this recent build up, but also North Korea?

 

NARANG: Yeah. So I think there are two hypotheses with China, and the reality is, I don’t think we know which one is correct yet, and we have to wait and see. So China has long lived with a lot of vulnerability to the United States, sort of conventional and nuclear force. It had a very small, easy to find, destroyable force. And one hypothesis is that this massive expansion of its silo fields and ICBM capability, which it is, you know, it’s building the silos, but we still haven’t. We don’t know if they have the missiles or the nuclear material for the warheads yet. They may down the road, but what hypothesis, and this is just them catching up and realizing, you know, they were so vulnerable and they need what is known as survivability of their nuclear forces, which is sort of critical to mutually assured destruction, right? The fact that I can survive anything you throw at me and have something left in reserve, to dis-incentivize an attempted first strike against my forces. So China lived with a ton of vulnerability for decades, since it first became a nuclear weapons power in 1964. So one hypothesis is this is just China waking up late to the survivability game and realizing it needs a lot more to survive against the United States. The other hypothesis is this represents a watershed shift in Chinese nuclear thinking that it has moved away from sort of plausible retaliation as a strategy, to wanting something more, to be able to stalemate and coerce the United States, especially if it feels like a conventional conflict with the United States over Taiwan, or the South China seas or Hong Kong is coming. It needs to have a much larger force to be able to stalemate the United States. And that would be, I mean, this complicates U.S. nuclear planning, no matter what. But which hypothesis is correct has real implications for sort of the rise of China and what we think its intentions are. And I think the more we start seeing, not just silo fields, but other types of capabilities, which are not necessarily consistent with, you know, just an assured retaliation force, the more weight we have to put on the, this is China realizing it has greater ambitions in the region, and it needs a larger nuclear force to be able to stalemate American conventional forces when that fight comes.

 

HEFFNER: Basically we have seconds only, but based on the fact that North Korea has not engaged, it is only tested. Is this silo movement more concerning to you than anything we could ever see from North Korea?

 

NARANG: I think so. I think the reality is China is a great power. North Korea has built its nuclear weapons, largely for an insurance policy against the U.S. invasion and a South Korea innovation from the south.

 

HEFFNER: And people now accept that as fact, the insurance policy, that it is not going to proactive….

 

NARANG: I think there are, there are some who believe that Kim Jong-un has developed this force in order to retake the whole Korean peninsula. But I think that it is unfeasible for him to do that. And so far it has, you know, Kim Jong-un has shown nothing except hyper rationality in his approach to the United States and developing the nuclear force and the sequence and the methodical way in which North Korea has done it. I think sort of there’s Kim Jong-un, you know, it might be you know, you caricature him in the movies and stuff, but, you know, in terms of behavior, in terms of means and rationality to develop an insurance policy against the United States, he’s done what many before him, his father and grandfather were unable to do. And I think, you know, there’s sort of a rationality to it. If he, if you were in that position facing the U.S. that’s what you would do.

 

HEFFNER: Vipin Narang, the Stanton Professor of nuclear security at MIT. Thank you so much for your time.

 

NARANG: Thanks, Alex. And it was a pleasure. Thanks.

 

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