Skip to main content

How nations risk nuclear terrorism

By Richard J. Chasdi, Special to CNN
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Mon March 26, 2012
U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak hold a news conference in Seoul, South Korea.
U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak hold a news conference in Seoul, South Korea.
  • World leaders meeting in Seoul to discuss security measures against nuclear terrorism
  • Richard Chasdi: One major source of risk is the use of proxy groups by nations
  • He says nuclear-armed Pakistan is one of the countries where proxy groups have been used
  • Chasdi: In a nuclear age, empowering proxy groups could lead to disaster

Editor's note: Richard J. Chasdi is an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University and the author of "Counterterror Offensives for the Ghost War World: The Rudiments of Counterterrorism Policy" (Lexington Books, 2010).

(CNN) -- World leaders are meeting in Seoul this week to discuss how to deal with the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The effort to prevent the misuse of nuclear materials and the spread of nuclear weapons has long-placed most emphasis on defensive measures. These are essentially on the "supply side" -- aiming to choke off the flow of nuclear weapon components and radiological materials to terrorists. While there is a place for such steps, there is another, and perhaps more successful way, to accomplish the goal.

One of the gravest threats to nuclear proliferation arises from the nations that use proxy groups -- seemingly independent organizations that are paid to further the interests of governments.

Richard Chasdi
Richard Chasdi

Ending or reducing the use of such proxy groups has real potential to reduce the availability of such materials to terrorists.

Perhaps the single, most dominant security threat stems from the nuclear-tipped country of Pakistan, with its accepted use of proxy groups to promote the perceived national interest.

Third-party transfer, where a country receiving weapons sells or gives them to another party, is always a danger, and with it looms the possible catastrophe of nuclear weapons in the wrong hands.

It is clear that the U.S. government is working hard with Pakistani officials to ensure that security at nuclear facilities and radioactive material storehouses is more robust. This has been taking place for years. For example, David E. Sanger and William J. Broad's New York Times article in 2007 (U.S. Secretly Aids Pakistan in Guarding Nuclear Arms) describes initiatives undertaken from the time of the Clinton and Bush administrations and the complexities associated with efforts to work with an ally that remains fundamentally "suspicious" of our intentions.

But the broader question remains: Why does Pakistani leadership continue its half-hearted support for counterterror practices aimed at those in a position to acquire such materials?

For one thing, Pakistan has a legacy of using proxy groups to promote its national security interests that goes back at least to the 1950s. At the time, Prime Minister Mohammad Daud Khan of Afghanistan worked to stoke nationalist demands and aspirations from the Pashtun population in geographical locales near the "Durand Line," the disputed border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In turn, Pakistani leaders used Islam as a framework and its own proxies as counterweights, to promote an alternate vision of a unified region unfettered by political instability and social unrest.

Lashkar-e-Tayyiba ("Army of the Righteous") is perhaps the most prominent Pakistani proxy in the contemporary world because it is generally recognized as having carried out the Mumbai terrorist assaults in 2008. This terrorist group is long known for its fierce struggle in Kashmir against Indian-supported political leaders and Indian security forces.

To be sure, Pakistan is not the only country in South Asia that practices international politics in this way; India has also used its own set of proxies to promote national interest in effective and sustained ways in places such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

But while the use of proxies in the region is not especially new, the risks nowadays are compounded by the presence of nuclear weapons and radiological materials.

It is vital that Pakistan comes to grips with its use of proxy groups and explores alternatives. The use of proxies in pursuit of national policy also has implications with respect to Iran, with its track record of trying to enhance its power in Iraq by supporting insurgents and providing know-how for the building of improvised explosive devices.

In Afghanistan, where the weak Karzai government remains unable or unwilling to meet its security obligations outside of Kabul, Iranian proxies wield their influence.

It is likely that Iranian leaders support the Shia organizations in Sunni-dominated Pakistan as well as Shia militant group Sipah-e-Muhammad with the broader aim of destabilizing Pakistan, in no small part to undermine American efforts in the region.

What does that portend for possible short-run relationships between Israel and Pakistan if Iran is deemed a common threat? In turn, what does that portend for the United States from its own geostrategic position?

We should take a page out of the conflict resolution literature playbook and use bargaining techniques that seek to isolate and identify motivations behind Pakistan's position on the use of proxy groups.

For example, the fears and anxieties political leaders experience often drive "hard-line" bargaining positions on issues, and knowing what those fears are in the case of Pakistan, U.S. leadership can work to relieve those fears by providing alternatives.

Another technique is to break down large seemingly unsolvable problems into smaller, more manageable ones. For instance, the broader policy of drone use by the U.S. can be broken down into smaller policies where agreement is possible. One possibility is putting in place tighter restrictions to satisfy Pakistan's leaders on when drones should be used, in what specific cases or as backups to other forms of interdiction.

In turn, compromises like those can and should be linked to issues of importance to the U.S. such as stronger Pakistani support for U.S. talks with the Taliban and greater transparency by the Pakistanis about security policies. Such talks might start a process that could lead to new agreements that come closer to confronting Pakistani proxy use.

All of this requires unequivocal American commitment to Pakistan for the long haul, to allay fears of abandonment. Against that backdrop, such problem-solving efforts would generate alternatives that might lead to innovative thinking about new security arrangements in Pakistan and other countries such as India and Afghanistan.

It is possible to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and radiological material dissemination by reducing reliance on proxy groups, and that could be our most effective tool in this ongoing battle.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Chasdi.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger