Pakistan and the Bomb: How the U.S. Can Avert a Crisis

The Pakistani army, backed by attack helicopters, is fighting intense gun battles in the Swat valley 60 miles outside the capital of Islamabad with Islamic extremists. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have struck back with suicide bombs in Pakistan’s major cities, including Lahore. A plot in Karachi was foiled but the extremists vow more carnage is imminent.

The battles are the latest in a deadly struggle for the control of Pakistan. Some are hoping this, at last, is the turning point when the army and the Pakistani government will finally defeat the extremists, but history suggests that conclusion is premature. More likely this will be yet another temporary setback for the Islamists to be followed by new advances elsewhere.

The fighting has cast a spotlight on the shaky security of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal—the fastest growing arsenal in the world. Pakistan is finishing construction of several new reactors and is seeking to buy more from China to increase its production of fissile material. The United States has provided Pakistan with over $10 billion in military aid since 2001. No one outside Pakistan can say if some of that money was diverted directly to the nuclear program by the army, but undoubtedly the U.S. assistance indirectly made it easier for the army to use its own funds to accelerate the development of its nuclear weapons.

Today the arsenal is under the control of its military leaders; it is well protected, concealed and dispersed. But if the country fell into the wrong hands—those of the militant Islamic jihadists and al Qaeda—so would the arsenal. The U.S. and the rest of the world would face the worst security threat since the end of the Cold War. Containing this nuclear threat would be difficult, if not impossible.

The danger of Pakistan becoming a jihadist state is real. Just before her murder in December 2007, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said she believed al Qaeda would be marching on Islamabad in two years. A jihadist Pakistan would be a global game changer—the world’s second largest Muslim state with nuclear weapons breeding a hothouse of terrorism.

Yet it’s not inevitable. For the past 60 years, U.S. policy toward the country has been inconsistent and mercurial, rife with double standards with Pakistan’s neighbor India. Increasing calls to “secure” the country’s nuclear weapons by force are far from productive—in fact, it’s making serious work with Pakistan more difficult.

Pakistan is a unique nuclear weapons state. It has been both the recipient of technology transfers from other states and a supplier of technology to still other states. It has been a state sponsor of proliferation and has tolerated private sector proliferation as well. Pakistan has engaged in highly provocative behavior against India, even initiating a limited war, and sponsored terrorist groups that have engaged in mass casualty terrorism inside India’s cities, most recently last November in Mumbai. No other nuclear weapons state has done all of these provocative actions.

The origins of the Pakistani nuclear program lie in the deep national humiliation of the 1971 war with India that led to the partition of the country, the independence of Bangladesh and the destruction of the dream of a single Muslim state for all of south Asia’s Muslim population. The military dictator at the time, Yaqub Khan, presided over the loss of half the nation and the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani soldiers in Dacca. The Pakistani establishment determined it must develop a nuclear weapon to counter India’s conventional superiority.

The new prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, convened the country’s top 50 scientists secretly in January 1972 and challenged them to build a bomb. He famously said that Pakistanis would sacrifice everything and “eat grass” to get a nuclear deterrent.

The 1974 Indian nuclear explosion only intensified the quest. Mr. Bhutto received an unsolicited letter from a Pakistani who had studied in Louvain, Belgium, Abdul Qadeer Khan, offering to help by stealing sensitive centrifuge technology from his new employers at a nuclear facility in the Netherlands. Over the next few years—with the assistance of the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)—Mr. Khan would steal the key technology to help Pakistan produce fissionable material to make a bomb.

China also helped the nascent Pakistani program overcome technical challenges. According to some accounts by proliferation experts, it allowed Pakistani scientists to participate in Chinese tests to help them learn more about the bomb. Mr. Khan returned to Pakistan and with ISI built a global proliferation enterprise to acquire the technology he and other scientists needed to get Pakistan its bomb.

Mr. Bhutto’s handpicked choice for army chief, Zia ul Huq, overthrew his mentor in 1977, executed him and accelerated work on the project. By the late 1980s Pakistan had made sufficient progress that both General Zia and Mr. Khan hinted publicly that Islamabad had a bomb. According to Mr. Khan’s public account, General Zia also warned Israel not to attack Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in the late 1980s or it would destroy Tel Aviv. In 1990 the U.S. imposed sanctions on Pakistan for building the bomb and cut off the supply of F16 jets already paid for by Pakistan.

Pakistan, like the rest of the world, was caught by surprise in May 1998 when India tested its nuclear arsenal. Despite pleas from President Bill Clinton and other world leaders, Pakistan tested its own devices a few weeks after India. Mr. Clinton offered Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a $6 billion aid program if he would not test. I was part of the team that made the offer in Islamabad. We later learned Mr. Sharif ordered the tests to proceed while we were still visiting. On the eve of the tests Pakistan claimed Israel was about to attack its nuclear facilities so it had to act. Mr. Sharif proudly announced Pakistan had “a newclear vision,” as the deliberately misspelled English phrase read on posters around the country, for the future.

Pakistan would soon demonstrate that the bomb gave its military leadership enhanced confidence to deal with India and to take risks. Less than a year after the tests, the Pakistani army initiated a limited war with India in the mountains of the Hindu Kush by crossing the line of control separating Pakistani and Indian forces in Kashmir. The Kargil War, as it is called, dragged on for several weeks.

In the White House there was growing concern the war would escalate out of control and could even go nuclear. On July 4, 1999, Mr. Clinton and I met with Mr. Sharif alone at Blair House and told him Pakistan was playing with fire. Mr. Sharif agreed to withdraw the army back behind the line of control.

Within months Mr. Sharif’s handpicked army chief, Pervez Musharraf, who had ordered the Kargil War, overthrew Mr. Sharif and sent him into exile. Mr. Musharraf poured resources into the program.

The ISI has longstanding ties to a number of Pakistan-based terrorist groups active in India. In December 2001, one staged an attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. India blamed Pakistan for the attack and mobilized. Again India and Pakistan appeared on the edge of nuclear disaster. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell needed almost a year to talk the two back from the brink.

Another ISI-backed group, Lashkar e Taiba, was behind the terror attack last November in Mumbai that kept the city in chaos for 60 hours. Again the specter of war between two nuclear weapons states was on the global agenda. Again India showed remarkable restraint in response to provocation from Pakistan, grounded in the reality that New Delhi has no attractive military options for retaliation against an opponent armed with nuclear weapons.

In short, Pakistan’s acquisition of a nuclear deterrent has worked to intimidate its opponent and to allow Pakistan to harbor terrorists who attack India and even to initiate limited military operations. What is not clear is how long India will tolerate such behavior. There are many in India who argue Pakistan must be taught a lesson for Mumbai.

Pakistan has also behaved as a major proliferator of nuclear technology. A.Q. Khan’s enterprise has become infamous for providing nuclear material and secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Much of his activity was sanctioned by the Pakistani authorities and was part of complex deals to enhance Pakistan’s own deterrent—for example, by acquiring missile technology from Pyongyang. Some of Mr. Khan’s activities were pursued independently of Pakistan’s government for his own wealth. We will probably never know the exact balance between the state’s interests and Mr. Khan’s on every transaction since Mr. Khan is a national hero to Pakistanis and no government in Islamabad is ever likely to reveal all of the dirty truth. The good news is that since Mr. Khan’s televised “confession” in 2004 there has been little evidence of continued Pakistani technology proliferation activity.

There are, however, persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons. Then Saudi Defense Minister and now also Crown Prince Sultan visited Mr. Khan’s laboratories in a much publicized visit in the late 1990s. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia deny any secret deal, but rumors of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb.

Estimates of the size of Pakistan’s arsenal by outside experts in think tanks range from 60 to 100, with more being produced each year. Pakistan can deliver its weapons by both intermediate range missiles and jet aircraft, including its F16s. The bombs and the delivery systems are dispersed around a country twice the size of California, often buried deep underground.

Mr. Musharraf created a Strategic Plans Division under his control to provide security for the arsenal. Its director, Lt. General Khalid Kidwai, has lectured across the world on the extensive security layers the SPD has developed both for physical security for facilities and personnel security to prevent unauthorized activity by those overseeing protection. The U.S. has provided expertise to the SPD to help ensure security. For now most experts agree that the necessary security architecture to protect the bomb is in place and the army has control of the weapons securely.

Of course, if the Pakistani state becomes a jihadist state, then the extremists will inherit the arsenal. There would be calls from the outside to “secure” Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, but since no outsider knows where most of them are located, these calls would be a hollow threat. Even if force was used to capture some of the weapons, Pakistan would retain most of them and the expertise to build more. Finally, Pakistan would use its weapons to defend itself.

U.S. options would be severely limited by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. We would need to work with India, Afghanistan, China and others to isolate the danger.

Islamabad has refused for decades to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), arguing that India must do so first. After the 1998 tests I joined then Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in an intensive diplomatic effort to persuade both India and Pakistan to sign the CTBT. The Pakistanis were the harder sell and we never even came close to an agreement with them. The effort failed entirely when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty in 2000.

Islamabad believes it was deeply unfair for Washington to offer India a civil nuclear deal in 2005 and not give Pakistan the same opportunity. The deal gives India access to advanced nuclear technology in return for international safeguards on some but not all of its reactors. Pakistanis believe the deal with India underscores America’s tilt toward the richer and bigger India and is yet another sign of Washington’s unreliability as an ally. Pakistan’s past proliferation behavior has so far ruled it out for a similar deal.

Last year the new elected civilian leadership boldly proposed that Pakistan adopt a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. The army made it clear that it disagreed with President Asif Zardari and would not accept a no-first-use pledge. The Mumbai attack put all talk of that pledge off the table for now, but it is a good idea that Mr. Zardari should raise again if and when relations with India improve.

U.S. policy toward Pakistan in general and the Pakistani bomb in particular has oscillated wildly over the past 30 years between blind enchantment and unsuccessful isolation. President Ronald Reagan turned a blind eye to the program in the 1980s because he needed General Zia and the ISI to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. President George H. W. Bush sanctioned Pakistan for building the bomb in 1990, and Mr. Clinton added more sanctions after the 1998 tests. Both had no choice as Congress had passed legislation that tied their hands and required mandatory sanctions implementation.

President George W. Bush lifted the sanctions after 9/11 and poured billions into the Pakistani army, much of it unaccounted for, in return for Pakistan’s help again in Afghanistan. On his watch the CIA dismantled much of the A.Q. Khan global network.

President Barack Obama has a full agenda with Pakistan, burdened by the war in Afghanistan, the hunt for al Qaeda and the internal crisis inside Pakistan. But the nuclear issue will not go away. Mr. Obama’s call for a world without nuclear weapons and his pursuit of Senate ratification of the CTBT will inevitably mean arms control will be back on the U.S.-Pakistan agenda.

It is in Pakistan’s interest to get into the arms control debate on its own terms. Islamabad should put the no-first-use pledge back on the table with India, and it should sign the CTBT without demanding Indian adherence first. Pakistan’s arsenal works, and it does not need to test again. If it wants to get into the global arms control architecture and get a deal like the one India has gotten, Pakistan needs to show that the days of A.Q. Khan, Kargil and Mumbai are over for good and that it is addressing all the challenges it faces.

In the meantime Americans should stay away from idle talk by politicians and pundits about “securing” Pakistan’s weapons by force. Such chatter is not only unrealistic but actually counterproductive. It makes the atmosphere for serious work with Pakistan on nuclear security harder, not easier. It gives the jihadists further ammunition for their charge that America secretly plans to disarm the only Muslim state with a bomb in cahoots with India and Israel.

America needs a policy toward Pakistan and its bomb which emphasizes constancy and consistency and an end to double standards with India. Congress should quickly pass the Kerry-Luger bill that triples economic aid without adding crippling conditions. We should provide military aid, like helicopters and night vision devices, that helps fight extremist groups. We should also continue providing expertise in nuclear security and safety to Pakistan—that is in our interest.

Today some in Pakistan recognize at long last the existential threat to their freedoms comes from within, from the jihadists like the Taliban and al Qaeda, not from India. Now is the time to help them and ensure their hand is on the nuclear arsenal.