TCS Daily

Nuclear Technology Proliferation: The Central Asian Connection

By Stephen Schwartz - March 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Pakistan last week in a bid to upgrade that country's military and political ties with the U.S. America needs a Pakistan firm in its commitment to defeat Islamist extremism, active in the hunt for Bin Laden and his minions, and prepared for real progress in negotiations with India. But Pakistan is also a source of concern because of its nuclear program, and the specter of uncontrolled proliferation of atomic weapons technology. For a different, and even more chilling perspective, Americans might consider the unenviable situation of a near neighbor of Pakistan, the Central Asian, former-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is largely unknown in the West -- except to some Americans, for whom Uzbekistan's reputation is very bad indeed. A Council on Foreign Relations commentary titled "Terrorism: Q&A" notes, "Amnesty International has warned that the U.S. decision to work on counterterrorism with such countries as Uzbekistan, Yemen, Colombia, and Indonesia could lead to human rights abuses." Western critics depict Uzbekistan as a human rights violator on the same level as North Korea or Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. maintains a military base in Uzbekistan, and, although it is overwhelmingly Muslim, the latter country also defines itself as a frontline state in the war on Islamist extremism.

But the Uzbek authorities' concerns are not limited to combat against groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al-Qaida ally. The Uzbeks seem to be in a unique situation, surrounded by owners and potential acquirers of nuclear weaponry.

Predictably, Uzbek government sources, when questioned, first mention their unease with the situation in Pakistan. The whole world now knows about the black market set up by rogue Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, delivering nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya. A secondary debate questions the lenience of Pakistani ruler Pervez Musharraf in dealing with the activities of Khan. Khan admitted his sale of secret nuclear technology, and was then pardoned by Musharraf.

In addition, reports surfaced in Western media last year alleging that Saudi Arabia, home of the ultraextremist Wahhabi sect that inspires al-Qaida, had explored the possibility of obtaining nuclear weapons from Pakistan.

Uzbekistan is separated from Pakistan by Afghanistan, formerly ruled by the Taliban, and by the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan. Coalition troops maintain uneasy control in Kabul, but the latter country has proven hospitable to other varieties of Islamist extremism. Uzbekistan is also only one country away from Iran, and the state in between is Turkmenistan, a bizarre dictatorship.

Then, of course, there is the matter of India's nuclear weapons industry, since Pakistan and India make no effort to disguise their involvement in a regional arms race in South Asia. Next comes China, likewise a nuclear power, and which is separated from Uzbekistan by the small Muslim country of Kyrgyzstan. China has a restive Muslim population on its western frontiers, most of them Uighurs, or Turkic in culture. The Chinese Muslims have been a major target for ideological colonization by the international Wahhabi conspiracy.

In the past the Uzbeks also had to worry about the nuclear legacy of their giant northern neighbor, Kazakhstan, which inherited enough nuclear warheads from the former Soviet Union that, along with Ukraine and Belarus, it was for a time among the world's major nuclear powers. Kazakhstan soon handed off all its nuclear armaments to Russia -- as did Ukraine and Belarus. Still, according to experts, that is not necessarily reassuring. Russia has gigantic problems with the black market export of technology.

And while Pakistan's Khan is known to have sold nuclear technology on the state level, Russian gangsters have allegedly offered nuclear technology to Islamist extremists in a more promiscuous fashion. At the end of the 1990s, rumors spread throughout the Muslim world that al-Qaida had sought to purchase nuclear materials through Saudi-backed infiltrators in Chechnya, as well as in Central Asia.

Islamist radicalism is bad enough as a threat, but most understandably people fear that with nuclear capabilities, al-Qaida or a government authority with a similar ideology could make September 11 in New York and March 11 in Madrid look insignificant.

However, real nuclear weapons are of little use in the hands of lay personnel. To explode a nuclear bomb, a team of technicians would be needed, capable of completing extensive mathematical calculations and other requirements for employment of the armaments.

By contrast, experts in terrorism consistently point to the menace of a "dirty bomb," which no extremist would need to purchase from any state. A "dirty bomb" could consist, in its simplest form, of a substance like cesium packed around a conventional explosive device, such as a stick of dynamite.

In that regard, Russia remains much more problematical than a country like Pakistan. Few Westerners are aware how much radioactive material is scattered in surprising and neglected places around the former Soviet Union. To cite one example, the northern seacoast of the Russian land mass features a string of lighthouses operated using nuclear materials. Russian vagrants and gangsters raid such installations looking for hard metals to sell as scrap. In this way, radioactive materials could find their way into the hands of terrorists.

Like the former Soviet republics, ex-Yugoslavia has also been viewed as a possible fountainhead for uncontrolled dissemination of nuclear materials. After the break between Tito and Stalin in 1948, the Yugoslav dictator committed significant state resources to a nuclear development program.

In 2000, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a fascinating article, "Tito's Nuclear Legacy." The authors, William C. Potter, Djuro Miljanic and Ivo Slaus, noted "the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia twice had a nuclear weapons program." They added that "the Yugoslav weapons program never reached an advanced state," but asked if the West was "right in minimizing its proliferation risk." In 2002, U.S., Russian, and Serbian officials cooperated in removing enriched uranium "enough for two nuclear weapons," from a laboratory at Vinca near Belgrade. The uranium was moved to Russia.

Uzbek officials are doubtless correct in seeing their country threatened by the complex, ultramodern horrors made possible by nuclear proliferation, no less than by the simpler, even medieval menace of radical Islamist ideology. The nuclear issue should not be overlooked in assessing Uzbekistan as a U.S. military partner... in one of the world's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Stephen Schwartz recently wrote for TCS about the missing element in the hunt for bin Laden.


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