Taliban is exploring options to obtain tactical nuclear weapon, claims former Afghan spy chief

Experts are sceptical the Taliban has means or motivation to acquire nukes, but ex-security head says world may come to regret ignoring intelligence reports from country

Arpan Rai
in Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Thursday 30 November 2023 13:02 GMT
The special forces units abandoned to the Taliban by Britain

The Taliban is actively exploring ways in which it can obtain a tactical nuclear weapon as it seeks to cement its grip on power in Afghanistan, the country’s former spy chief has claimed.

Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghanistan’s national security service, said the Taliban had ambitions to follow in the footsteps of the likes of North Korea, Iran, China and Russia in acquiring a nuclear weapon as the emblem of a modern military power.

The Islamist militant group is desperate for international recognition after seizing control of Kabul following the withdrawal of Western allied forces in August 2021. It has gone on to implement a brutal misogynist regime in the country, and the group has still not been recognised by the UN as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.

“I have reports indicating that a group of the Taliban is looking into how to access tactical nuclear weapons. Whether they can get them from Pakistan or pay engineers to get them. That is going to be a disaster,” Mr Nabil told the Herat Security Dialogue, an annual conference on the situation in Afghanistan that was held this week in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and attended by The Independent.

Experts at the conference voiced scepticism about the Taliban having the capabilities, connections or indeed motivation to acquire a tactical nuke, but in an interview on the sidelines of the conference, Mr Nabil told The Independent that the possibility was too dangerous to ignore.

“This [Taliban regime] is a Jihadi machinery. They have the desire, [and are having] discussions on how to get there, how others are doing it [developing tactical nuclear weapons]. This definitely needs better attention than what it is getting right now,” he said.

“Over two years, it's proven that this terrorist group reached [greater] strategic depths. They have access to the most sophisticated weapons and ammunition of the Nato forces,” he said, referring to equipment left behind by the hasty withdrawal of US, UK and other allied forces.

“They got access to sophisticated intelligence equipment and surveillance systems. Right now they're using this against Afghan people,” he said.

Mr Nabil served as chief of the country's intelligence services in two stints, from 2010 to 2012 and then again from 2013 to December 2015, including the first year of the Ashraf Ghani administration that was ultimately toppled by the Taliban in 2021.

The 55-year-old resigned amid disagreements with Mr Ghani and went on to become a political rival. He has continued to be an important voice in regional discourse since the Taliban takeover.

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul (AP)

Much of the international attention on the Taliban since it seized power has been on its social policies – denying women the right to education and removing them from workplaces, as well as parks and recreational spaces.

Mr Nabil suggested the rest of the world may regret not focusing more on the Taliban’s military activity during this period. “When you look back at this, you will know they tried,” he said. “The talks about women’s education are distracting from the Taliban’s strategic goals. Go to the Jihadi mentality [of the Taliban] and what they want for this region.”

Even if the Taliban had the practical means to acquire a nuclear weapon, experts said such a move would come at a very heavy cost for the group’s fight for legitimacy on the world stage, rather than present it as a major player.

“Acquiring nuclear weapons brings in a lot of political baggage and Afghanistan is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – even if they were trying to acquire that, there’s going to be a barrage of diplomatic pressure on them. And at this point, the only thing they don’t need is more political pressure,” said Dr Arian Sharifi, international security expert and lecturer at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

He added: “In fact, the opposite is true because they’re seeking recognition from the international committee. Even now, gesturing anything about nuclear weapons is going to kill their potential recognition.”

Another major hurdle to any nuclear ambitions harboured by the Taliban would be the enormous cost of purchasing and delivering such weapons, given the disastrous state of Afghanistan’s economy since the group’s takeover. The group is also presumed not to have the technical capabilities to maintain such a weapon, Dr Sharifi said.

The Herat Security Dialogue aims to present a united front against the Taliban of stakeholders in Afghanistan’s future, bringing together former government officials, diplomats from the Ashraf Ghani administration and regional leaders. Hosted by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, it was held each year in Herat province before continuing into exile after the Taliban seized power.

The consensus there is that even if a small faction within the Taliban were to explore obtaining a nuclear weapon, by far the main focus for the group is the ongoing threats to its power within Afghanistan, both from the local branch of Isis and the small remaining pockets of resistance fighters.

“The Taliban are not facing any threat from any state,” Dr Sharifi said. “The only military need is counterterrorism, particularly against Isis-K which is their main adversary and then a small number of smaller resistance armies who are resisting them. All of that requires tactical-level weaponry that could be used in counterinsurgency. There is no need for the Taliban to seek nuclear weapons now and in the near future.”

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