Failure to understand or act on intelligence goes a long way toward explaining the attacks of September 11, 2001. On this 10th anniversary of those events, we seem, once again, not to grasp the import of the information being provided by our intelligence services. Lee Hamilton, former co-chairman of 9/11 Commission, recently said, "Everybody I know in the national security community thinks another attack will eventually succeed." The fight against terrorism is not over. Bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is enfeebled, but our safety and security are still at risk. This time, the origins of the threat are in South Asia, not the Middle East.
Documents released in July seem to confirm some of our worst fears -- Pakistan sold nuclear weapons parts and technology to North Korea for a mere $3.5 million USD.
Thanks to economies of scale, the per unit cost of a Pakistani nuclear bomb is said to have dropped to $10 million.
Worse, the Pakistani nuclear arsenal now includes an inexpensive, small, mobile, tactical missile with a miniaturized nuclear warhead. These were designed to be deployed on the battlefield against potential invasion by India.
Horrifyingly, these complete weapons (not just parts and plans) could easily be transferred to terrorists.
According to Shaun Gregory, a Bradford University professor who has extensively studied Pakistani nuclear security, "Should terrorists decide to take control of a nuclear weapons site, they are developing the means of doing it. The only thing lacking is a detailed knowledge of where the nuclear weapons are stored."
The enmity between Pakistan and India has spurred a nuclear arms race that is producing ever cheaper and more widely dispersed nuclear weapons.
Pakistan's military, though underfunded, is the world's fourth largest. It is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country. It also relies on armed, militant Islamic groups as an auxiliary used to leverage their position in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and even against India proper.
This is the reason that Osama bin Ladin, the Taliban, and terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, (the Pakistani security-supported group that killed that 166 Indians and foreigners, including Americans, in Mumbai) find safe harbor in Pakistan.
Terrorist groups and nuclear weapons are force multipliers, which Pakistan believes bolster their standing when confronting India's larger military.
During the past five years the United States has increased pressure on the Pakistani military with drone strikes, a lethal assault on Osama's hideout, and reduced military aid. Seasoned observers, including terrorism expert Peter Bergen, reported that the drone attacks have both infuriated and humiliated a wide portion of Pakistani society, and conjectured that a consequence may be enhanced Pakistani reliance on militant Islamist allies. Alarmingly, the US National Intelligence Officer for South Asia, Dr. Peter Lavoy, believes that Pakistan realizes that it has already "lost control" of the insurgent groups they sponsor.
Whether by collusion, corruption, negligence, or theft, Pakistani support for militant Islamic groups creates a danger that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists and other enemies.
WikiLeaks cables revealed that these risks are creating anxiety around the world. The UK has "deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons" and the sense that nuclear proliferation is a "greater danger to the world" than terrorism. A Russian diplomat asserted that, "Islamists are not only seeking power in Pakistan but are also trying to get their hands on nuclear materials."
The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of Jihadists or nuclear war in South Asia demands active engagement by the United States. Measures must be devised to walk Pakistan back from its sponsorship of terror attacks and militant Islamic groups.
Tensions between India and Pakistan may be reduced by encouraging greater transparency and trust between the two nations as a basis for developing a durable arms control regime. Secretary of State Clinton took a step in this direction at the second round of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue in July, where she proposed enhancing trade and investment between India and Pakistan as a means of building bridges. However, more needs to be done -- the subcontinent requires continuing and urgent attention by the Departments of State and Defense.
A system of reduction of nuclear weapons, verification, and inspection -- like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and the USSR -- needs to be developed.
Without it, we are taking a risk of almost unimaginable proportions. September 11th would pale in comparison to the horror unleashed if one cheap, easily transported nuclear weapon were detonated in the heart of Paris, London... or New York's Times Square.
Follow Ruth Bettelheim, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Ruth_Bettelheim