Argument

The Breach

China is about to break important international rules designed to prevent nuclear proliferation. Can Beijing be stopped?

In the coming weeks, China is expected to announce that it intends to export two nuclear-power reactors to Pakistan. The move would breach international protocol about the trade of nuclear equipment and material. Once the deal is officially confirmed, the spotlight won't be on either Beijing or Islamabad; it will be on Washington, which concluded a watershed nuclear agreement with India in 2008. That deal is the precedent that has opened the door for China -- creating an awkward test for a U.S. administration greatly concerned about the risks of nuclear proliferation.

China's announcement will overstep the guidelines of the 46-country Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which bar nuclear commerce between Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) members like China and nonmember states like Pakistan. It will leave U.S. President Barack Obama with two options: He can either oppose the transaction and request that China leave the NSG, or grudgingly accept the Chinese exports. As of last week, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Chinese leaders in Beijing for the three-day U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the United States was strongly leaning toward the latter.

If the White House does choose to grin and bear the China-Pakistan deal, it will have compelling reasons for doing so. The United States has a lot on its plate with China right now. It wants Chinese help on U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran, a greater Chinese effort to rein in North Korea, and a significant revaluation of China's currency vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar. But more importantly, the United States made its own NSG rule-suspending nuclear deal with India in 2008. Beijing could have blocked the NSG exemption for India, but accommodated the pressure of the United States and its allies on this issue. Now, the bill is coming due as Islamabad demands equal treatment. It would be reasonable for China to expect reciprocity from the United States in the NSG, given that it was Washington that started changing the rules.

Indeed, since joining the group in 2004, China has played according to the NSG's voluntary rules, despite a long tradition of nuclear collaboration with Pakistan. Upon joining, Beijing informed the group of its existing civil nuclear agreement with Pakistan, which Beijing said committed China to build the Chashma-2 power reactor now scheduled to be finished next year. Since 2004, Pakistan has enlisted China to supply it with two additional power reactors, Chashma-3 and -4. Beijing hasn't obliged, but now that U.S., French, Japanese, and Russian firms are poised to sell nuclear equipment to India, China is finally prepared to press the issue.

A number of NPT countries are watching all this with alarm. At last month's NPT Review Conference, they referred to the U.S.-India deal as a dangerous precedent. States that export nuclear equipment, they worried, would feel emboldened to brush aside rules meant to reward NPT membership with nuclear-trade privileges. The U.S.-India deal is also still lamented as a missed opportunity; had India agreed to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty as a condition of the NSG exemption, for example, it would have taken a major step to de-escalate nuclear competition in South Asia. (It also would have blunted much of the resentment the deal and exemption touched off among many of the NPT's nonnuclear-weapon states.)

Instead, here's where we are now: China is prepared to take advantage of the opening created by the United States and India to move forward on its nuclear deal with Pakistan. Because the NSG guidelines are voluntary and not legally binding, critical group members cannot prevent the transaction. Still, China knows that it faces international criticism if it goes through with the export to Pakistan, so the timing of its announcement is crucial. China chose not to formally announce its plans before the NPT Review Conference closed last month. Instead, the matter might be raised during an annual NSG plenary meeting to be held in New Zealand in late June.

If that happens and China looks set to move forward with the trade, all is not lost. Rather than remaining formally silent or issuing a paper démarche expressing regret about China's move, the United States could call upon China and Pakistan to provide a significant nonproliferation benefit as part of the transaction -- of the sort the U.S.-India deal failed to include. For example, both countries could together open the road to negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which would halt production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons worldwide. Right now, Pakistan is blocking negotiations at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, citing the U.S.-India deal and the NSG exemption for India. Many NSG states think that China -- the only one of the NPT's five nuclear-weapons states never to have declared a moratorium on producing fissile material for nuclear weapons -- stands behind Pakistan in holding up the negotiations.

A more modest but practicable step would be for China and Pakistan to cooperate in improving the security of the latter's nuclear installations, materials, and other assets. Doing so would force China to engage more directly in solving nonproliferation problems in South Asia at a time when Islamabad has become resentful and suspicious of Washington's efforts to secure Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure. This should not trouble the United States: Historically, China has a far more trusting relationship with Pakistan in the nuclear area, and since the late 1980s, Washington and Beijing have worked through bilateral nonproliferation issues concerning Chinese nuclear ties to Pakistan and have brought into force a bilateral nuclear-cooperation agreement on the basis of which U.S. industry is now deeply involved in China's civilian nuclear-energy program.

If the NSG countries press for such nuclear security and nonproliferation action, however, China may well push back, for example by claiming that India would surely object to its greater involvement in Pakistan's nuclear program. But such regional sensitivities didn't stop India from forging a nuclear alliance with the United States in 2008 despite its knowledge that Washington had done the nuclear deal as part of a strategic realignment aimed at challenging Beijing.

There will also be critics in the United States. Surely, many will argue, China will fall short in improving Pakistan's nuclear security, given the lack of success had by the United States, Japan, Russia, and South Korea in convincing Chinese leaders to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. But China didn't meet those expectations for a specific reason: its strategic interest in keeping the peninsula divided and its border with the North at ease. Boosting nuclear security in Pakistan, however, would clearly and directly improve China's own security. China shares the U.S. goal of eliminating terrorism. Loose nukes in Pakistan could end up in the hands of Chinese irredentists and separatists.

So, if China refuses to halt the exports to Pakistan, should Washington push to kick Beijing out of the NSG? No. At a time when the country has become the world's biggest nuclear beehive, a China outside the suppliers group would be free to ignore the concerns of the United States and other nuclear exporters.

Sixty percent of the reactors under construction in the world today are in China. Chinese industry is investing billions of dollars to make equipment for these and future units, and then find new export markets, including in developing countries. U.S. regulators have already warned their Chinese counterparts that without China's cooperation, unfettered exports of substandard equipment made in China could imperil the safety of the world's nuclear installations. Outside the NSG, China might in the future not be restrained from exporting sensitive technology if the country establishes itself as a major hub for reprocessing and plutonium-fuels production. With China outside the NSG, the United States and other NSG states would find it harder to get Beijing to strictly implement nuclear export controls. In the worst case, a China adrift from the global nuclear-trade regime could become the future center of a nuclear black market.

But keeping China in the NSG doesn't mean letting Beijing off the hook. NSG members should push hard to ensure that significant nonproliferation benefits accrue from the China-Pakistan deal. Simply acquiescing would seal the group's lack of credibility as the world's nuclear-trade gatekeeper. Firm resolve by the United States and other NSG states, on the other hand, would alert China that it will have to think about more than just its commercial interests in exporting nuclear equipment.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Rupture

Could the killing of Al Qaeda's No. 3, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, sever the ties between the terrorist group and the Taliban?

The killing of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the Egyptian head of al Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan, in a drone strike in North Waziristan last month is undoubtedly a body blow to the terrorist organization. But, more importantly, his death might signal an end to the close ties between al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban -- for it was Yazid, more than any other figure, who was the linchpin of the special relationship between the two groups.

Yazid, one of al Qaeda's founders, the veteran head of its finance committee, and the organizational head of operations in Afghanistan, is the most senior figure in the terrorist group to be killed since Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Mohammed Atef, the longstanding Egyptian operational commander, was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

But Yazid will not primarily be missed because of his operational value to al Qaeda or his military acumen. He built his reputation as al Qaeda's moneyman and bin Laden's chief administrator, not as a strategist or fighter. The main reason Yazid's loss is such a setback to al Qaeda is because of his close and enduring ties to Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban.

"Nobody within al Qaeda had better relations with Mullah Omar and the Taliban than Yazid," Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist who knew Yazid and last met him in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in 2000, told me. "At a time when the Taliban is questioning its relationship with al Qaeda, this is a great loss for al Qaeda."

In the last year, Mullah Omar has begun to start untangling himself from his association with al Qaeda, calculating that loosening the knot might make Taliban's return to a position of power in Afghanistan more palatable to the key players in the region, according to sources aware of the content of talks between representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government. The July 2009 directive to issue a new code of conduct for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and the Taliban's more recent rhetoric about their struggle being local rather than international are both elements of this new strategy.

So far, Mullah Omar has refused to repudiate al Qaeda or promise to keep the terrorist organization out of Afghanistan if the Taliban were to return to a position of power, likely the absolute minimum demands of the United States in any future negotiated settlement for Afghanistan. In part, this was due to his long and close relationship with Yazid.

Without Yazid to make the case, however, al Qaeda is in a much-weakened position to argue against such concessions. According to Benotman, Yazid was almost certainly appointed as the head of al Qaeda's Afghanistan operations in 2007 to nurture the terrorist group's relationship with the Taliban rather than because of any military rationale. "He was really connected to them, and it was crucial for al Qaeda to find somebody to fill this role. Ayman al-Zawahiri [al Qaeda's No. 2] can't do this because he doesn't have those relationships." In this light, the drone strike that killed Yazid might be seen as a major success: The loss of Taliban support would be nothing less than a strategic disaster for al Qaeda, calling into question its ability to operate in Afghanistan and ending its hopes of once again using the country as a base for its international operations.

But how did Yazid come to foster such close ties? His jihadi career, like those of so many others at the top levels of al Qaeda, began in Egypt. Born in 1955 in Sharqiya on the eastern side of the Nile Delta, Yazid became involved in the 1970s in Islamist circles linked to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. After the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad in 1981, Yazid and hundreds of other members of the group -- including Zawahiri -- were imprisoned under exceptionally harsh conditions by the Egyptian government, contributing toward their hardening into life-long terrorists.

Released after three years in jail, Yazid moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1987, where he joined up with Zawahiri, who had relaunched a branch of Egyptian Islamic Jihad there. In Peshawar, Yazid met bin Laden and forged an exceptionally close bond with the Saudi millionare-jihadist, helping him launch al Qaeda in 1988 as an Arab force dedicated to defending Muslim lands. It was only 10 years later that Zawahiri formally allied himself with bin Laden.

Yazid became bin Laden's principal bookkeeper, managing the internal administration of al Qaeda, its fundraising activities, and the payment of salaries to fighters. After the group's top leadership decamped to Sudan in the early 1990s, Yazid also helped bin Laden administer his extensive business interests there and managed the disbursement of funds to jihadi groups. At that point, he became known in jihadi circles as Sheikh Saeed al-Muhasseb ("the accountant") and developed a reputation as a shrewd, quiet, and efficient man, well respected by his peers. When he moved to Afghanistan in the late 1990s -- now a member of a terrorist organization intent on targeting the United States -- Yazid forged close ties to the Taliban and emerged as a key go-between between bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

In the run-up to 9/11, knowing that Mullah Omar opposed al Qaeda attacks on the United States, Yazid tried to dissuade bin Laden from launching the operation. According to the 9/11 Commission report, Yazid also feared the U.S. response to an attack. But Yazid was an al Qaeda loyalist, and though he feared that the operation might jeopardize the Taliban government in Afghanistan, he ultimately went along with bin Laden's decision, according to a former jihadist with knowledge of al Qaeda's internal deliberations at the time.

The die was cast. As Mullah Omar and the al Qaeda leadership went into hiding, Yazid began to emerge as a central figure. His coming-out party was in May 2007, when he appeared in a video after his appointment as the head of al Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan. True to type, he insisted in that video that "funding is the mainstay of jihad." In the years that followed, Yazid became one of al Qaeda's most visible spokesmen, attracting headlines in 2009 after promising in an Al Jazeera interview that the terrorist group would use Pakistani nuclear weapons against the United States if it could get hold of them. And in January, al Qaeda's propaganda arm released a widely seen video featuring Yazid, in which he took credit for the joint al Qaeda-Pakistani Taliban operation that killed seven CIA operatives in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009. U.S. intelligence officials believe Yazid probably played a role in planning that attack.

Yazid, according to officials, had grown in his operational role within al Qaeda, though by all accounts he continued to maintain his managerial role, overseeing relations between al Qaeda and other jihadi groups. This multitasking was likely due to necessity as much as anything: A significant number of al Qaeda's operational commanders have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas. (Altogether, more than 20 senior al Qaeda operatives have been killed since the CIA intensified its campaign in 2008, according to a count by the New America Foundation.)

Yazid's new operational role appears to have included plotting terrorist attacks in the United States. According to a recent CNN documentary, he was one of the al Qaeda leaders that the "American al Qaeda" recruit, Bryant Neal Vinas, met with after he joined the terrorist group in North Waziristan in March 2008. Vinas has admitted that he helped al Qaeda's leaders plan a bomb attack on the Long Island Rail Road in New York. Yazid is also believed to have had a role in the plot by Najibullah Zazi, a Denver limousine driver, to bomb subway cars in New York City last September.

The missing link

With Zawahiri going deeper into hiding and bin Laden still deep underground, Yazid was at the time of his death in de facto control of al Qaeda's day-to-day operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan, according to U.S. counterterrorism sources. Last June, when al Qaeda needed more funds because of shortages in weapons and other supplies for fighters in Afghanistan, it was Yazid, not Zawahiri, who made the appeal, likely because it was judged too risky for Zawahiri to surface to make the recording. The same might have been true for Yazid's claim of responsibility for the CIA Khost attack.

According to U.S. counterterrorism officials, Yazid might have been one of the very few people in al Qaeda with the ability to communicate with bin Laden and Zawahiri. According a former jihadist I spoke with, such communication was likely to have taken place through a system of couriers to minimize the risk to al Qaeda's top two leaders. But the successful targeting of Yazid will likely curtail all but the most crucial conversation for the near term and make Zawahiri even more cautious before releasing videos and communicating with operatives.

Although Yazid's death is a victory for the United States in its fight against al Qaeda, the fact that he was killed in North Waziristan, an area that in recent years has emerged as the epicenter for al Qaeda's plots against the West, demonstrates the continued danger posed by the terrorist safe haven along the Afghan border. In recent months, there had been suggestions from some quarters that al Qaeda's top brass had moved out of the area because of the pressure from drone strikes. But Yazid's presence in North Waziristan suggests that senior al Qaeda figures continue to operate in the tribal areas. In some ways, his successful targeting runs counter to current trends. Testimony from Western militants who recently traveled to the area and were subsequently arrested suggests that al Qaeda has to some degree successfully adapted its operations to protect itself from such strikes. According to the New America count, only half as many al Qaeda leaders were killed by drone strikes in 2009 as in 2008.

As successful as drones have been, they are becoming less so -- and are no panacea. To date, the Pakistani military has not launched operations to clear North Waziristan of pro-al Qaeda militants on anything like the scale it did in neighboring South Waziristan in the fall of 2009. The United States will need to redouble its diplomatic efforts to persuade Pakistan that such actions are in its own self-interest. Many of the violent attacks carried out by the Pakistani Taliban across Pakistan in the last two years are believed to have been orchestrated from North Waziristan, including deadly attacks on mosques and a hospital in Lahore in the last week. It was from the same area that the group orchestrated an attempted car bombing of Times Square last month.

But while the Pakistani Taliban, from their base in the tribal areas in the northwest, are increasingly operating in tandem with al Qaeda and plotting attacks overseas, the Afghan Taliban, headquartered in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, have been signaling they might be ready to jettison bin Laden. Yazid's death will make that choice all the more palatable to Mullah Omar, who is not incapable of realpolitik and does not now have bin Laden as his guest. With no military solution for Afghanistan in sight, the moment may be right for the United States to further encourage Afghan President Hamid Karzai in reaching out to the Afghan Taliban and to back higher-level talks between the two sides.

Yazid's death may be a severe blow to al Qaeda's ties to the Afghan Taliban and the hope of a return to safe refuge there, but when it comes to launching attacks in the West, as long as al Qaeda operatives have a safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, there will unfortunately be no end to the ambitious up-and-coming terrorists who can take his place. That makes it all the more necessary to further isolate al Qaeda, both from its former allies in Afghanistan and from the territory in which it can train recruits for new attacks in the West.