Worst-Case Scenario: Pakistan Falls to the Taliban

The most significant and potentially devastating national-security threat now facing the United States, and the Obama Administration, would be the fall of Pakistan, a nuclear power, to Islamic extremists allied to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Earlier this month the Taliban was within sixty miles of the capital of Islamabad and already engaged in fierce fighting with the central government, headed by President Asif Ali Zadari. The Pakistani government, in a move roundly criticized in the West, had earlier negotiated a truce with the Taliban in the Swat Valley, once a tourist Mecca. In exchange for supposedly laying down their arms, the Taliban was permitted to impose Islamic, or sharia, law, on the region. But the Taliban reneged on their promise to disarm and instead introduced a reign of terror throughout the area, cutting off heads, burning down girls’ schools, requiring men to grow beards and women to be fully covered, and mandating that disputes be settled in religious courts dominated by clerics rather than in traditional (i.e., slow and bureaucratic) secular courts. 

Despite some encouraging Pakistani combat successes in the first two weeks of May, there was no guarantee that the Taliban advance could and would be stopped on a permanent basis. If the Zadari regime should collapse and be replaced by a Taliban-style government – such as the one that dominated Afghanistan prior to the U.S. intervention following the 9/11 attacks – President Obama and his principal advisors would have to very quickly, and correctly, determine what that cataclysmic change would mean to security planners, law-enforcement agencies, first responders, and others tasked with protecting the United States itself. 

A Potential Nuclear Holocaust? 

The first and foremost question to be considered must be what would or could be done about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. If they are not secured by the United States and/or other nations and fall under control of the Taliban, the United States would, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, face the real prospect of a nuclear attack, either against U.S. forces in the region or by a weapon surreptitiously slipped into the United States itself and detonated in one of America’s great cities. The Taliban might well share its nuclear arsenal and technology with other rogue nations, or even with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, immensely compounding the threat.

Another nightmare possibility is that other nations might find the threat of a nuclear attack from Pakistan or its allies so terrifying that they would decide to take preemptive action on their own, igniting a regional war that could quickly become a global conflagration. There already have been credible reports that Israel and India, to take but two likely examples, have been meeting secretly to develop a joint contingency plan to take out the Pakistani nukes if extremists seize power in Islamabad.

The United States would face the real prospect of a nuclear attack, either against U.S. forces in the region or by a weapon detonated in one of America’s great cities

In addition to preparing to cope with potential nuclear threats, U.S. law-enforcement agencies and others involved in homeland security would have to anticipate a potential wave of terrorism that could dwarf the consequences of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In order to fend off external challenges, an extremist government in Pakistan could be expected to unleash terrorists throughout the world, providing them with safe haven, training, explosives, and logistics support. 

A Flood of Refugees and a Major Language Problem 

The imposition of a Taliban-style government on Pakistan might also create one of the largest floods of refugees in modern times, with millions of homeless Pakistanis seeking safe haven in other countries in the region – or in the West. This would produce a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions and create a huge problem for countries taking in refugees as they attempt to sort out the terrorists and sleeper agents from the bona fide human victims fleeing Taliban oppression. 

The United States would be a favored safe haven for many of the refugees. There are currently an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people of Pakistani origin in this country, about half of them already U.S. citizens. The largest concentration is in the New York City area; other large concentrations are in Houston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. – and all of those communities would serve as natural magnets for both legitimate refugees and terrorist sleeper cells. An Islamist victory could be expected to raise the U.S. homeland-defense threat to its highest level since 9/11, triggering tightened security at airports, seaports, military installations, public buildings, and elsewhere throughout the country. 

To prepare for that scenario, U.S. federal, state, and local intelligence agencies would have to significantly build up their intelligence sources, including informers, in the U.S. Pakistani community. This would be a difficult enough task in itself, but it would be compounded exponentially by the fact that there are very few U.S. intelligence personnel fluent in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan – and/or in several other languages (including Punjabi, Pashto, Balochi, Sindhi, and Saraiki) spoken in Pakistan, along with countless dialects. Most U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence operational personnel also suffer from a major deficit in terms of their knowledge of Pakistani culture, customs, and etiquette. 

The real challenge for U.S. policymakers now is to shore up the Zardari government and to provide it with the money, training, and materiel resources needed to defeat the Taliban and reassert Islamabad’s control over the northwest border reaches of Waziristan – where, not incidentally, Osama bin Laden and his closest followers are believed to be hunkered down. For President Obama and his principal advisors, the most important point to remember is that, if the war against the Taliban can be successfully waged in Pakistan, it will not have to be fought in the continental United States itself. As President Zadari pointed out less than two weeks ago (on 7 May), to an audience that included the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA Director Leon Panetta, “We are all in this together, and our fates are inextricably linked.”

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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