Anna Feuer is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
If the current political unrest in Ukraine had emerged four years ago, U.S. policymakers would have faced an additional and particularly alarming concern: the threat of nuclear terrorism by nonstate actors. In 2010, Ukraine possessed enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to make fifteen nuclear weapons but lacked sufficient security measures to prevent its acquisition by nonstate actors, particularly during periods of severe political instability. Today, Ukraine is free of weapons-usable fissile material, along with a dozen other countries, having committed at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington, DC to removing all HEU stockpiles. Ukraine’s reduction efforts demonstrate the biannual Summit’s value as a coordinating and action-forcing mechanism to improve the security of nuclear materials and facilities.
This week, more than fifty heads of state and country representatives will gather in The Hague for the third summit to review and strengthen the objectives laid out in the 2010 Washington Work Plan and 2012 Seoul Communiqué. Ukraine’s success, achieved in time to avert what could have been an additional threat posed by the crisis in Crimea, should encourage progress in the world’s riskiest nuclear environment: South Asia. The prospect of regional insecurity following the drawdown of U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan lends particular urgency to this year’s summit. Participant countries should use the opportunity to seek enhanced nuclear security measures from Pakistan and India.
Pakistan and India—both nuclear powers and non-signatories of the Non Proliferation Treaty—have long been considered the world’s least secure nuclear-armed states, ranking at the bottom, alongside Iran and North Korea, of the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Index (NTI Index) assessesing the twenty-five countries with at least one kilogram of weapons-grade nuclear material. Today, the threat of nuclear terrorism emanating from Pakistan or India is even more critical for a few reasons.
- The drawdown of U.S. and ISAF troops from Afghanistan in 2014 could aggravate regional insecurity by enabling Pakistan-based militant groups such as al-Qaeda Central and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to seek safe haven across the border or encouraging Indo-Pakistani competition in Kabul. David Sanger and Eric Schmitt have warned that the drawdown could also mean the loss of CIA drone bases in Afghanistan, weakening the capacity of the United States to respond to a nuclear terrorism crisis in neighboring Pakistan.
- Pakistan has accelerated its development of miniaturized nuclear weapons for potential battlefield use, increasing the risk that militant groups operating both openly and covertly in Pakistan could acquire a small weapon and either detonate it or use the material to build an improvised device.
- Pakistan has experienced high-profile terrorist attacks on tightly secured military targets in recent years, carried out by the TTP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif continues to pursue peace talks with the TTP, the prospects of pacifying antistate militants are remote. State sponsorship of nuclear terrorism in Pakistan also remains a concern as long as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency supports anti-Indian militants, though some analysts doubt the likelihood of a nuclear handoff.
- While most nuclear terrorism threat assessments focus on Pakistan, India’s widespread corruption and potential for political instability increases its vulnerability to nuclear terrorism and smuggling. The NTI Index emphasizes the importance of societal factors such as the presence of terrorist groups interested in acquiring nuclear material and government malfeasance that could hinder the implementation of security regulations. The recent arrest of an Indian Mujahideen leader revealed the terror outfit’s plans to attain a nuclear bomb from Pakistan . Moreover, Indian officials have dismissed the suggestion that rampant government corruption could increase the risk of nuclear smuggling and have expressed skepticism about the need for greater transparency.
The ability of the United States to address Pakistan’s nuclear security bilaterally is limited: reports that the Pentagon has drawn up contingency plans involving military intervention in the event of a Pakistan nuclear security crisis, as well as U.S. support for India’s civil nuclear program, have placed significant strains on the already fraught U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
Multilateral efforts, particularly the NSS, have proven more effective in encouraging Pakistan’s participation in global nuclear security initiatives. In Seoul, Pakistan committed to opening a nuclear security training center, deploying portal monitors to stem illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, and supplying nuclear security assistance to other states. The NTI Index named Pakistan the most improved nuclear armed state of 2014, noting that Pakistan enacted new regulations governing the physical security of nuclear facilities and mandating on-site security reviews.
Summit participants should ensure that these measures represent the beginning—rather than the limit—of Pakistan’s efforts to improve the security of its nuclear arsenal. Building upon its progress in strengthening laws regulating on-site physical protection, Pakistan should adopt the latest International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines to protect material during transport and mandate constant surveillance of nuclear facilities.
Pakistan also needs to accept the legal commitments that govern the international nuclear security regime, such as the the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT). However, Pakistan’s willingness to enhance transparency in the area of nuclear security will be limited as long as relations with India, as well as the United States, remain tense. Moreover, as George Perkovich has argued, the intensity of the insurrection in Pakistan suggests that only dramatic improvements in overall stability will ensure the security of its nuclear assets.
Delegates at the NSS may have more leverage when it comes to seeking improved nuclear security measures from India. India ranks even lower than Pakistan on the NTI Index, primarily due to ineffective laws and regulations that recommend, rather than require, security measures. However, India has a strong record of supporting international legal commitments: it is a signatory of the ICSANT and the CPPNM, along with its 2005 Amendment. India has also fully implemented United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540.
At Seoul, India pledged to establish an independent nuclear regulatory agency, but bureaucratic issues have impeded its completion. Given the current slump in U.S.-India relations, multilateral fora like the summit provide the best tools for securing India’s commitment to strengthening its nuclear security regulations. With India’s general elections scheduled for April, summit participants should call the current administration to account for its failure to establish an independent regulatory agency and secure pledges to improve insider threat mitigation and the physical protection of nuclear materials in transport.
The United States and international partners should take advantage of any opportunity to mitigate the effects of the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan on regional stability. While the security of the India and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals ultimately depends on a significant reduction in militancy, the NSS offers the chance to meaningfully improve both country’s preventive capacities as the U.S. role in maintaining regional security recedes.