Small Wars Journal

Could Pakistan Use Nuclear Weapons in a Future Conflict with Afghanistan?

Thu, 08/23/2012 - 5:30am

A possible scenario:  The first use of a nuclear weapon since World War 2, happened in Afghanistan, where Pakistan used a tactical nuclear weapon on the plains just north of Kandahar…

It was early May, and the Pakistani advance into Afghanistan was stalled slightly north of Kandahar, on the road to Kabul. The terrain favoured the defender, and the Afghan National Army had been fighting well, against a hesitant Pakistani offensive. It was slightly more than a year ago Pakistan had begun the first larger scale ground incursions into Afghanistan, trying to quell the Pashtun terror and rebellion on the Pakistan side of the border. The safe havens in Afghanistan had to be eliminated, less the terror may destabilize Pakistan itself, was the rationale in Islamabad. With a stalled offensive on its hands, and the prospect of an endless counter insurgency engagement in Afghanistan, a long time enemy, the political and military top in Pakistan was increasingly tempted to use the Pakistan military trump card;  nuclear weapons.

On the 21st of May, the Afghan National Army had massed forces for a counteroffensive in the arid rocky desert, against a weaker Pakistan contingent. Pakistan feared, that a tactical defeat here, would both turn the public opinion inside Pakistan itself, but also give the Kabul government the will to continue the struggle indefinitely. It was now or never, that Pakistan should assert its supremacy over Afghanistan as a country, and the Pashtun terrorists. The decision was made in Islamabad to use a tactical nuclear weapon against the massing Afghan Army.

This article explores the future of Afghanistan, post-ISAF, and speculates into the developments of the existing conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The origins behind this conflict promises it to be the dominant conflict following the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan, and it is likely to determine the future for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Particularly developments in Pakistan can affect the development, not less because the two countries may consider each other equals, save the fact that Pakistan possesses a nuclear arsenal.

I will argue, that the nature of this conflict, between two Muslim states, equal in perceived size and righteousness of cause, but with one state possessing nuclear weapons, may escalate into the first instance of use of a nuclear weapon since 1945. Dreadful and speculative as it may sound, and luckily is, I will argue that all the necessary conditions are met, for it to realistically occur. Let us hope, it does not.

The Af-Pak conflict in origin and perspective

The (armed) conflict along the Af-Pak border is older than the two countries themselves. Although it is directly traceable to the Durand-line and the settlement of 1893, the tribal-ethnic tension in the region is even older. Afghanistan has seen and fought enemies from the south-east even before this demarcation, and the divide is deeply rooted in Afghan self-consciousness. The initial relationship between Afghanistan and the then newly independent Pakistan in 1947-1949 was also centered around the validity and exact meaning of the Durand line. Before Durand, it was just the British Indian empire and regular and native troops instead. Although for practical purposes the line functioned as the border, numerous border incursions, including establishment of bases and outposts by both parties on opposite sides of the border, worked to keep the conflict and doubt alive over the decades. Ironically, the mujahidin bases in Pakistan, and US (CIA) backed incursions into soviet-occupied Afghanistan helped establish the illegal and malign cross-border relationship, and likely also helped reconfirm the Pashtun identity as a sovereign tribe capable of ousting invaders (the soviets). The border remained porous after the Soviet withdrawal and well into the post 9/11 era, when it was the Pakistan intelligence agency, ISI, backing the Taliban or Al-Qaeda insurgency, which was the base of the cross-border activity, now aimed at destabilizing the afghan government.

Although the ISAF campaign in Afghanistan centered around aiding the legitimate, elected, Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), in a fight against a native insurgency, this insurgency also found its safe havens in Pakistan, across the border, turning the border into one of the absolute key elements of the counter-insurgency campaign. In addition, as the campaign changed from full scale counter insurgency back into counter-terrorism mode in 2012-2014, focus was once again on Al Qaeda training camps and facilities on both sides of the border, in south and east Afghanistan, and in the nort western frontier provinces of Pakistan. Surveillance and attacks were stepped up by the US forces, but as an undesired spillover it also intensified conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each nation accused the other of harbouring insurgents, and occasionally regular troops were targeted, by error, instead of insurgents. The incidents were numerous and well known, and all served to create the seeds for future conflict. International pressure, some of it from the UN, some from NATO and some from the US, at both countries to “deal” with the “border problem” also increased the significance of, and focus on, this particular issue.

The conflict over sovereignty over both the physical terrain as well as political leadership over the Pashtun tribes straddling the border was thus kept alive well into the 21st century, and did certainly not improve during the ISAF years in Afghanistan (up to 2014).

Map showing the Afghanistan – Pakistan border. The mountainous region around Torkham (Khyber pass) was to difficult for a real incursion, and Pakistan entered Afghanistan from the South, past Kandahar.  Source:

Afghanistan post ISAF withdrawal

During the last years of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan (up until 2014), the Afghan government became more and more independent, at least in rhetoric. The dependence on foreign support, mainly in funds, but also in physical military support, air assets and such, were still great, but it was in everybody’s interest to develop Afghan independence and sovereignty. This Afghan independence was the exit strategy for ISAF, and the justification for the toppling the Taleban regime back in 2001.

Given the display of corruption and disorganization in the afghan government and structures it could be hard to remember that Afghanistan did not come from a background as a failed state, but was a functioning country, with a rich and proud history, of universities and regional moral leadership, up until 1979. Many of the current senior politicians and government officials, ministers and officers, are old enough to have been part of previous governments, educated at good universities, and with a strong desire for an independent and strong Afghanistan. They only want the American presence as long as it provides dollars and security, and they long to be rid of the feeling of puppetry associated with the Karzai government.

This independence and the very short and quick road to natively developed and formulated strategies and international policies were surprising for the international community, once they began the stepdown from involvement. Lack of focus on the regional context, allowed the afghan government to formulate its own strategies. The child overtook the parent on the inside so to speak.

Given Afghan history, especially during the Soviet and US invasions, it was paramount for the first truly independent government to establish its power and sovereignty against its neighbours, particularly Pakistan. Rhetoric was soon followed by troop concentrations, covert tribal engagements, and more. Even if some of the afghan government understood the risks and appreciated the necessity of a good relationship, the history was deeply rooted and the domestic agenda and credibility required a hard stance.

The use of nuclear weapons today

The use of a nuclear weapon, or more rightly, the decision to use such a weapon, by a state, is no casual decision, and can only be the product of both history, policy, doctrine, and the immediate situation. The specific case of Pakistan deciding to use a nuclear weapon in Afghanistan requires a little study and analysis to be credible.

The potential use of nuclear weapons has been a topic for security studies and policy ever since before 1945, but some of these previous considerations need to be altered to suit the proposed scenario in this article. Conflicts involving countries possessing nuclear weapons have consisted of both the US vs. the Soviet Union, NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact, the Indian-Pakistan conflict, Israel against its Arab enemies, the isolated North Korea, as well as China vs. the US. Most conflicts have been between nations or alliances in which both sides possessed nuclear weapons, resulting in the MAD doctrine between USA and the Soviet Union. The situation between India and Pakistan may be seen as “Mutually Assured Destruction – Light” since Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons (for more about Pakistani nuclear processes and decisions click here). When both sides possess nuclear weapons, the nature of the conflict changes. The potential use of nuclear weapons, even limited tactical use, became almost void, and was not to be expected except in the most extreme circumstances. During early stages of the cold war, before parity was reached in numbers of weapons and megatons, there was US doctrine for the use of tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons, as distinct from strategic ones (click for comparison of US to Pakistani doctrine). However, any decision to use nuclear weapons, of any kind, had to be strategic, because of the implied consequences and developments. The tactical doctrine was abandoned by the US when the Soviet Union reached parity in tactical nuclear weapons.

To find conflicts between states where one side possessed nuclear weapons and the other not, the Middle East provides the best example. Although not admitted, Israel is sure to possess nuclear weapons, and its neighboring states not. However, armed conflict has been limited to smaller scales ever since 1973, so Israels existence has not been threatened (immediately), not forcing the decision to use such weapons or not. Chinese conflict with Taiwan and rivalry with Japan may be characterized by only China possessing nuclear weapons, but both Taiwan and Japan are so closely allied with the US, and the conflict of such a magnitude in a world context, that Chinas had to calculate the US overwatch into the equation.

Neither of these previous studies leads us to fully understand the role of nuclear weapons between countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, including nature of the conflict, the countries doctrines for the use of such weapons, the role and influence of allies possessing nuclear weapons, nor the potential international response to such a use. It would be safe to assume, that the majority of the Pakistan military is informed by the accepted and ruling understanding of nuclear weapons, also from their relationship to overseas war colleges and military academies and the influence this nevertheless has on military leadership. However, Pakistan has not possessed nuclear weapons for decades, and is a relatively young nuclear nation, with a highly politicized military, closely interwoven into military coups and day to day politics of the country. This unique situation allows for different doctrines for the use of nuclear weapons to be developed, over time or with haste. The Pakistani nuclear doctrines are based almost entirely on the conflict with India, but this may be viewed as relevant in a conflict with Afghanistan, as I will argue below. It is important to note, that Pakistan does not accept a “no first use” doctrine, and that this allows for the use of nuclear weapons as a response to conventional war and various threats. In addition, the particular Pakistani command structure for controlling nuclear weapons is not fully matured, and contains at least some degree of delegation, and a huge military influence.


Following independence in 1949 Pakistans history have been intricately tied into armed conflicts with India, over Kashmir, for various historical reasons. Following several wars, Pakistan developed nuclear weapons and reached a “mutually assured destruction – light” standoff with India, reducing violent incidents, but not solving the origins of the conflict. The well known history of Pakistan serving as the base for US backed mujahedin resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, to becoming the troublesome stepchild to the war on terror in Afghanistan post 9/11, serves as the catalyst to re-kindle the Afghan-Pakistan border issues. Ironically, it was more US and ISAF actions against targets within Pakistan, often conducted from bases in Afghanistan, which alienated Pakistan not just from the west, but also from Afghanistan. The strong afghan rhetoric against Pakistan as a convenient arch-enemy and to some extent scapegoat for internal Afghan issues resonated within Pakistan, and inflamed the conflict further. It must not be misinterpreted, that the strong western perception that some terrorists actually were based in Pakistan was heard, loudly, in Pakistan, and accumulated over time to alienate Pakistan further. Pakistan thus maneuvered under pressure from all sides, not earning many friendships other than those of necessity. The international rhetoric and pressure was felt, and over time affected internal politics and Pakistan self perception. Regardless of governments, military or civilian influence, the most important political scene in Pakistan was the domestic one, and this affected policies and agendas. Any Pakistani government would have to appear independent and strong, just as the case is with its afghan neighbor. While ISAF was present in Afghanistan, this political maneuvering needed to be delicate, not to upset the US, and resulted in closed supply lines and similar displays of power. After 2014, the American and ISAF supremacy subsided, although it was hoped that a sufficient Afghan-Pakistan dialogue had been established up until then. During the ISAF years, Pakistan had participated in the border disputes, although often diplomatically playing the victim, to American strikes, by aircraft or drones. Occasionally, Pakistan would respond in kind, with smaller raids or artillery strikes into Afghan territory. These incidents were important in internal Pakistan politics, and influenced the post-2014 politics and stance towards Afghanistan. In that sense, Pakistan was almost as affected by the war in Afghanistan, as Afghanistan itself was.

Once the international presence in Afghanistan dwindled, and the country was normalized, the conflict with Pakistan would develop differently. Pakistan would view the conflict in a different light, in its own right, not being a partner in a US engagement. When this crisis management, politically and military, developed, the Pakistani decision making process for the use of nuclear weapons became relevant, as did the normal Pakistan perspective on its regional role with India and other neighbouring countries. All of this lay behind Pakistans motivations for engagement in Afghanistan, and the eventual use of a nuclear weapon under specific circumstances.

International presence and response

The international support for Afghanistan is declared thoroughly, over and over again, even if it is closely intertwined with a strong desire for a military exit. The question is, to what extent, the declared and agreed decade of support, following the final transition in 2014, is a political statement, necessary for both the western alliance and the afghan government, in the current struggle against insurgents, and how it will actually play out in a political climate in 2015 and beyond. This will no doubt also, from the western perspective, be guided by such distractions as financial crisis, other flashpoints and military interventions, as well as the independence of the afghan government at the time.

Predicting actual physical presence in the future is difficult, but it is likely that there will remain a couple of major American bases in the country, but likely at operationally desirable locations, such as Helmand and Bagram. The presence will be dedicated to support for military training, and enough military hardware to conduct counter-terrorism operations and self defence, but may place troops away from the area of fighting between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the south.

One major inhibitor to the use of nuclear weapons, is the international response and reaction to such an action. While this has been effective in the long running indo-pakistan conflict preventing escalation, it is different in a potential struggle between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the roles being different. There is a significant difference between nuclear testing, and the actual use in a conflict, but nevertheless it must be questioned what the international community can and will do, if Pakistan were to use a nuclear weapon in a war with Afghanistan. Precisely because it is between two countries where only one side possesses nuclear weapons, and no one will retaliate on behalf of the other state, the ramifications are fairly limited. After almost fifteen years of war in Afghanistan, and with a broad commitment to support Afghanistan, this is, however, mainly directed at the internal struggle within Afghanistan. When Afghanistan will decide to use this independence in international conflict with Pakistan, it is a different matter, which also becomes increasingly difficult to handle. At the same time, after having urged Pakistan for decades to action the terrorist safe havens, accusing them of harbouring terrorists, it will be difficult to condemn a Pakistan military offensive against precisely these terrorist. Even, if it results in clashes with regular Afghan military forces. Following the ISAF withdrawal in 2014, and a normalization in Afghan status in the international community, any intervention will require a unified international community, and not, as in 2001, unilateral action. Without doubt, this unity will gather rapidly in the aftermath of the use of a nuclear weapon, but it will still refrain from any direct intervention, which will be considered costly and impossible. Although even countries such as China and Russia will be surprised by the use and will condemn the incident, they may still prevent international, particular UN, intervention. For them, bigger issues are at stake, than the incident itself, and they have a different perspective on the stability of the entire region. In this climate of disbelief and fear, no country or alliance is stepping up to aid Afghanistan physically.  India in particular will use strong rhetoric, but will be very careful in its troop movements and signals, not wishing to provoke a nuclear war over a single use in Afghanistan, regardless of its contempt for Pakistan because of the incident. The use of the weapon itself, will end the conflict in the immediate timeframe, allowing time for international brokering, engagement and rhetoric to unfold, thus satisfying much of western opinion.

The stage is set

The developments up until 2014 set the pretext to the ensuing deterioration of the relationship, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Together all these factors presented above, result in a situation where the use of a tactical nuclear weapon is very likely. The precondition is a military conflict between two countries, of roughly equal size, but were only one possesses nuclear weapons. The conflict itself needs to present a significant threat to each of the countries, if not immediately an existential threat, then at least in a longer perspective. This is met for Afghanistan having to assert itself over a perceived enemy on its soil, and Pakistan will assess that the outcome of a war with Afghanistan will affect its credibility towards India, perhaps even see the Afghan engagement as a proxy-war with India. The nature of the conflict will be one of political manifestation and political supremacy, a conflict for which symbolic weapons are well suited. The terrain, climate, and the nature of an irregular enemy, all serve to make the operational war unwinnable in conventional terms. Pakistan can only deploy limited forces to an offensive, because most of its forces will be tied down along the border with India. Afghanistan may not have as capable an army, but will deploy it all in an existential fight. The tribes in the area will change sides and serve to muddle the picture, adding to the feeling of frustration on both sides. The history of prolonged engagements in Afghanistan will compel both sides to strive for a quick and decisive victory, also preempting international interference. This international interference is hesitant, following the recent major involvement in Afghanistan, and the successful withdrawal. No western country will wish to become embroiled in a new prolonged struggle in central Asia. The appetite for this was gone, and it was assesses correctly by Pakistan, which long had felt the collective scorn of the west for harbouring terrorist. Now, in their own struggle against insurgents, albeit in Afghanistan, they had to win. In this situation it was decisive that Pakistans doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons was relatively immature and allowed for first use, not only retaliatory. The Pakistan calculus was that although they anticipated international outrage and condemnation, this was offset by the positives by using the bomb. They would at once win the conflict and establish the proper respect for Pakistan in central and south Asia. It would be a strong signal to India not to underestimate Pakistan, and would serve a deterrent in that conflict for a long time to come. The use of the weapon itself in a remote mountainous region would minimize civilian casualties, and radioactive downfall. Although this would never be said, it did also limit the international intervention, compared to a use over a major city, or in a conflict which could escalate further with nuclear weapons.  Pakistan calculated with this, and was prepared to accept the international response for a time, in order to reap the calculated benefits.

It could happen…

The key argument in this prediction is that all current (2012) developments point towards a situation which could allow the use of a nuclear weapon, without any dramatic or radical developments. A mere progression of trends already strong today, will create the necessary situation, and these have been described in the paragraphs above, in this article. It requires no mad man and no revolutions.

This scenario is the only scenario, which meets the total combination of factors, for a nuclear weapon to be used. Nowhere else in the world, meets the same conditions. Key factors are of course that only one side, of two almost equal states, posses nuclear weapons, and that no one backs the other state with nuclear weapons in an existing alliance. Key is also, that the use is not directed at a major population center or significant civilian target. A key condition is also the decision making process in the country deciding to use the weapon, not being fully matured and influenced by existential considerations. These factors combine in an Af-Pak scenario post ISAF withdrawal, where this could happen. The weakest point in the speculative theory is the absence of any US, ISAF or other international forces, which must be beyond immediate or secondary effect of the use of the weapon. This is possible in the southern Afghanistan some time after ISAF withdrawal, but perhaps the least likely of the conditions to be met.

This article is speculative, but I would like to recall, that it is derived from sound considerations and a possible evolvement of the current situation trends.

About the Author(s)

Niels Klingenberg Vistisen is currently  in Afghanistan as the political advisor in the Nahr-E Saraj district, Helmand province, since May 2011. He deployed in 2010 first as a major in ISAF Joint Command, Future Operations, and following this as the Chief Governance Planner in Regional Command South West until December 2010. Besides being an Army Officer, Niels Vistisen holds a masters degree in military history.


Khan Omar

Sun, 09/09/2012 - 1:59am

Why on earth would Pakistan "use" its nukes against a people (not just the Afghan state)who consider Pakistan their second home. Imagine a poorer Finland against a poorer Sweden or may be a poorer USA versus a poorer Canada? As a graduate in mil history, the author should know the nature of Pak-Afghan historical, socio-cultural, and even tribal affinities. More importantly though, author's scenario paints a Pakistan using nukes to avert a "tactical defeat" (sic). Ignorance has no description better than that. My guess: our dear military historian may just be imagining the "friends" making "use" of Afghan flag to pose an existential threat to the state of Pakistan....the only level of threat where "any nation" would use "anything" on its disposal to defend its people and honor. If that eventuality was ever to materialize, most Afghans would be fighting from the eastern side of the Durand Line. But this scenario is also entirely "speculative" ...exactly like the one our author presents.
May the gods fight on the side of the just.


Tue, 08/28/2012 - 11:46am

It is always good to see free-thinking on unusual subjects from serving Danish officers of-the-line. But 'am afraid this one is several steps too far out. The previous commenter from Pakistans NDU said it quite well: An absurd hypothesis.

There are plenty of unwelcome scenarios with higher probabilities to pick from when considering Afghanistan post the announced 2014 ISAF withdrawal. So no need to think up absurd stuff, then.

One is again reminded that concise strategic thought relating to the complexities of possible deployments of nuclear weapons was always in short supply in Denmark for the simple reason that Denmark has never developed nuclear technology, nor operated military nuclear devices, and thus not developed the related doctrines, contingency plans, exercises etc. either. Although there may exist cold-war arcana related to forward basing of warheads which involved the Danish Army in the logistics to some extent, an officer of Mr. Vistisens generation would be unlikely to have had training in such matters.


Ps: It can only be the triumph of our COIN strategy in Helmand and Nahr-e Saraj that has enabled the good Major to spend time worrying about kiloton sized bombs in writing, rather than kilo sized IED's in the flesh, so to speak ;)


Sat, 08/25/2012 - 9:22am

This is an extremely farfetched and absurd hypothesis. Pakistan using a nuclear weapon or even going to war against Afghanistan (or any other Muslim state) is a preposterous hypothesis. First a war-like scenario between Pakistan and Afghanistan or Iran would be domestically unsustainable for any government because it would result in extreme violent reaction from the masses and second, even if such like thing happens, use of nuclear weapons while launching an offensive is just as absurd an idea as of US using nuclear weapons over its own territory in pursuit of some terrorist outfit. Pakistan nuclear deterrent is India centric and could conceivably be threatened to use as a “last resort”.
The article could have been of some academic value had the author read some material regarding Pakistani Nuclear Doctrine, which although has not been formally drafted as yet, however enough material exists highlighting its main contours. It is indeed a bold step for the journal to publish such articles which contain nothing beyond “conspiracy theory”.

Shams Zaman
M.Phil (Strategic and Nuclear Studies)
National Defence University