The Making of the Pakistani Bomb
In 2009, soon after President Obama announced that Pakistan’s nuclear materials “will remain out of militant hands”, the US ambassador in Islamabad sent a secret message to Washington. Anne W. Patterson was deeply worried. Her concern was a stockpile of highly enriched uranium kept near an aging research nuclear reactor in Pakistan. There was enough material to produce a nuclear bomb.
In her cable, sent on May 27, 2009, Ms Patterson reported that the Pakistani government was dragging its feet on an agreement reached two years earlier wherein Islamabad had agreed that the United States would remove the material. The US Ambassador had been told by a Pakistani official: “If the local media got word of the fuel removal, they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.
Approached by the US Ambassador, Morarji Desai, the Indian Prime Minister strongly stated: “if [we] discovered that Pakistan was ready to test a bomb or if it exploded one, [we] would act at [once] “to smash it.”
The cable does not tell us the end of the story. Hopefully the fuel has been removed since then. It however, remains a fact the Pakistani nuclear program has given ‘sleepless’ nights to successive US Presidents.
But perhaps even more interesting than the Wikileaks cables is a series of US documents published by the National Security Archives (NSA) of the George Washington University on how Pakistan acquired the bomb in the 1970’s (most of the documents date 1978-1979).
This period witnessed the military coup by General Zia-ul-Haq who imposed martial law on 5 July 1977. He first ruled as Chief Martial Law Administrator and later as the President of Pakistan (from September 1978 till his death).
It corresponds to Jimmy Carter’s Presidency in the United States1.
The new documents show that though the Carter Administration was deeply upset with Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the arrival of the Soviets in Afghanistan at the end of the seventies, made the US officials ‘forget’ that Pakistan had become nuclear. Later, it was too late to stop the nuclear train.
The documents prove that, already in the 1970’s, (as today), the Pakistani nuclear weapons program has been a source of anxiety for US officials in Washington; especially so in the late 1970s, when they discovered the infamous AQ Khan’s network.
The US Ambassador had been told by a Pakistani official: “If the local media got word of the fuel removal, they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.
The Carter Administration would have been even more worried, if they had known that Khan and his team were spreading nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea with the help of China, but it is another story.
The entire process started after Pakistan’s defeat during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. President Bhutto realized that Pakistan would never be able to defeat India in a conventional war. He decided to secretly go for nuclear weapons. In 1973, Pakistan began negotiations to buy a nuclear reprocessing facility (used for producing plutonium) from a French firm.
In May 1974, after Pokhran I2, in a section ‘Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’, a Special National Intelligence Estimate, the CIA talks of expecting Pakistan to ‘press ahead’ with its nuclear weapons program (at that time ‘far inferior to its prime rival, India, in terms of nuclear technology’, says the report).
In August 1974, US intelligence agencies estimated that Pakistan would not have nuclear weapons before 1980, even if it gets ‘extensive foreign assistance’. But a year later, the CIA predicted that Pakistan could produce a plutonium–fueled weapon as early as 1978, as long as it had access to a reprocessing. It was therefore enough to stop the transfer of reprocessing plant to end the process.
Unfortunately the US intelligence agencies made some wrong assumptions. As explained by the NSA papers, they gave “virtually exclusive emphasis to the plutonium route for acquiring the fissile material required for building the bomb. Thus, intelligence analysts assumed that countries like Pakistan would try to acquire reprocessing technology so that they could chemically extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods taken from nuclear power reactors. This was a reasonable premise because plutonium has played a central role in modern nuclear arsenals. Nevertheless, during the early 1960s, US intelligence had assumed that China would first build and test a plutonium weapon, but as it turned out, Beijing found it more expedient to produce highly-enriched uranium for the nuclear device which it tested in October 1964.”
The documents confirm that Zia’s main objective was the consolidation of the nuclear program initiated by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who had bragged “we are ready to eat grass” to possess the coveted weapon.
Thanks to AQ Khan who managed to steal the blueprints for a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility, the Pakistani dream became a reality right under the eyes of the Americans who “wanted to maintain good relations with that country, a moderate state in an unstable region”.
The National Security Archive, which obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act, writes how Washington discovered that Pakistan, which had not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)3 suddenly had the key elements to make a bomb: “Once in power, the Carter administration tried to do what its predecessor, the Ford administration, had done: discourage the Pakistani nuclear program, but the CIA and the State Department discovered belatedly in 1978 that Islamabad was moving quickly to build a gas centrifuge plant, thanks to ‘dual use’ technology acquired by Khan and his network.”
It is worth mentioning some of the stages of the process during the years 1978-1979. Reading these historical documents, one realizes that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his colleagues believed that ‘a package of tangible inducements’ would dissuade Pakistan from taking drastic steps.
Early 1978, General Zia told a Saudi newspaper that no Muslim country had nuclear weapons and that a Pakistani bomb “would reinforce the power of the Muslim world.” The US kept silent.
- Early 1978, General Zia told a Saudi newspaper that no Muslim country had nuclear weapons and that a Pakistani bomb “would reinforce the power of the Muslim world.” The US kept silent. The US Ambassador acknowledged that it was a ‘gaffe’ from Zia’s part, but the US did not want to create problems for Zia.
- Mid-1978, France decided to cancel the contract for the reprocessing plant in Pakistan. There were too many risks of proliferation. The Carter Administration started to wonder what would be the next step Islamabad would take to fulfill its objective. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Newsom discussed the issue with Yaqub Khan, the Pakistani Ambassador in Washington. Under the terms of the Glenn Amendment, the United States would not require written assurance from Pakistan on ‘indigenous construction’ to continue to grant aid to Pakistan. However, when Newsom tried to tell Khan that an assurance would be desirable, Khan retorted that Pakistan would see it as ‘a new condition, namely that [Islamabad] not sin in the future’. Khan added “Asking for an assurance was unrealistic because if Pakistan really wanted to go ahead with reprocessing, it would not matter how many assurances [it] provided.” The answer was clear.
- Was the Symington Amendment (of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961), banning US economic and military assistance and export credits to countries that deliver or receive, acquire or transfer nuclear enrichment technology, applicable to Pakistan. This was the big question in the corridors of the State Department? Some Congress members also believed that the sanctions were not applicable as long as Washington was trying to ‘prevent Pakistan from acquiring a reprocessing capability’. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher was not so sure. “Can we make a persuasive case that the Amendment is not yet applicable or are we just asking for (a) forbearance, or (b) trouble.”
- In the summer of 1978, the US diplomats requested Islamabad to give assurances that it would not use reprocessing technology to produce plutonium. Pakistan Foreign Minister Agha Shahi answered that it was a “demand that no country would accept” and that Pakistan “has the unfettered right to do what it wishes.”
- In October 1978, soon after France announced the cancellation of the reprocessing plant, Vance informed Shahi that the United States was in a position to “resume aid programs and consider military sales.” But Vance added that Washington remained concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions and that it was resuming aid “on the assumption that the government … has no intention of developing a nuclear capability”. It was pious thinking.
- By November 1978, Washington knew that Pakistan was on the brink of acquiring the technology for a gas centrifuge enrichment facility. The State Department made some proposals to ‘inhibit Pakistan’ from making further progress toward developing nuclear capability.
- In January 1979, Ambassador Hummel met with General Zia to discuss the Kahuta nuclear facility. When the Ambassador brandished some satellite photography of the plant, Zia just said “That’s absolutely ridiculous. Your information is incorrect. We have to clear this up. Tell me any place in Pakistan you want to send your experts and I will let them come and see.” They were, of course, never allowed. Hummel is supposed to have told Zia that “applicable US law might have to be implemented.” In other words the Symington Act.
- The same month, the US intelligence agencies estimated that Pakistan had reached a point where it “may soon acquire all the essential components” for a gas centrifuge plant. It was believed that Pakistan could have a ‘single device’ (plutonium) by 1982 and may test a weapon using highly-enriched uranium in 19834.
In March 1979, Warren Christopher met with General Zia and Foreign Minister Shahi and spoke ‘tough’. Shashi said it was ‘an ultimatum’.
They (the CIA) thought that Pakistan might engage in nuclear cooperation, even share nuclear technology, with Saudi Arabia, Libya or Iraq.
- The same month, State Department officials suggested some measures to Secretary of State Vance to get the “best combination of carrots and sticks” to constrain the Pakistani nuclear program. They however remained pessimistic (‘prospects are poor’).
- Some senior State Department officials then proposed an ‘audacious buy off’. Assistant Secretaries Pickering and Saunders proposed a ‘security and stability package’ totaling $290 million in military and economic aid to help assuage the fears of India that motivated Pakistan’s search for a nuclear option. Pickering and Saunders then proposed India-Pakistan negotiations on a ‘no weapons building, no weapons use’ understanding. It never saw the light of the day, in particular because the Congress could “never accept it when it was so evident that Pakistan was trying to build the bomb”. Also, it was a too obvious ‘buy-off’.
- In April 1979, the State Department thought that to cut off aid to Pakistan would be a “new and dangerous element of instability.” They wanted to maintain good relations with Pakistan, a ‘moderate state’.
- During the same period, Washington made unsuccessful attempts to frame a regional solution by involving India in a ‘mutual restraint’. Approached by the US Ambassador, Morarji Desai, the Indian Prime Minister strongly stated: “if [we] discovered that Pakistan was ready to test a bomb or if it exploded one, [we] would act at [once] ‘to smash it’.”
- A few months later, the CIA speculated that the Pakistani nuclear program might receive funding from Islamic countries, including Libya. They thought that Pakistan might engage in nuclear cooperation, even share nuclear technology, with Saudi Arabia, Libya or Iraq. A correct assessment.
- In September 1979, officials of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency were ‘scratching their heads’. What was to be done about the Pakistani nuclear program?
- In November 1979, Ambassador Gerard C. Smith reported that he met senior British, French, Dutch, and West German officials to encourage them to take tougher positions on the Pakistani nuclear program. He found “little enthusiasm … to emulate our position.”
- In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, improving relations with Pakistan became a top priority for Washington. For the CIA, Pakistani officials believed that Washington was “reconciled to a Pakistani nuclear weapons capability.”
In 1978, besides its European allies, Washington tried to put pressure on China to in turn pressurize Islamabad to cooperate and stop working on the bomb. Beijing was requested to stop selling sensitive technology to Pakistan. A year earlier, the US Ambassador to Pakistan reported on a discussion with Chinese ambassador Lu Weizhao who gave him some assurance; the State Department then commented on Beijing’s promise to not help Pakistan develop a reprocessing plant: it seemed ’credible’. How wrong they were!
…the China’s role as a leading provider of sensitive technology to Pakistan has repeatedly strained US-China relations, and has complicated efforts to expand US-China trade.”
After all those months and years, to acquire the bomb was for Pakistan a question of ‘survival’; they often argued that it was their ‘unfettered right’ to develop nuclear technology.
Another briefing of National Security Archives points out: “the China’s role as a leading provider of sensitive technology to Pakistan has repeatedly strained US-China relations, and has complicated efforts to expand US-China trade.”
Business may have been more ‘complicated’ for the Americans, but the fact remains that China has been Pakistan’s main support to acquire the bomb.
Another document obtained by NSA under FOIA reported that in June 1983 “there is unambiguous evidence that Pakistan is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons development program.”
While the Carter Administration worked hard on a nonproliferation policy, Pakistan still managed to build its nuclear arsenal. It certainly brought deep frustration to Carter and his team.
Another document admits that during the 1980s, “the US was criticized for providing massive levels of aid to Pakistan, its military ally, despite laws barring assistance to any country that imported certain technology related to nuclear weapons. President Ronald Reagan waived the legislation, arguing that cutting off aid would harm US national interests”.
The moral of the story is that when a State is desperate to get nuclear technology, it is difficult to stop it, with sticks or with carrots.
- Carter served as the 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981.
- India’s ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ in Pokhran, Rajasthan.
- Like India.
- Although 1984 was a more likely date for the CIA.