A Pakistani man reads a document on the country’s nuclear program shown on a television screen at an electronics shop in Karachi. Once-secret U.S. diplomatic memos reveal Western concerns that Islamic militants might gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear material.
Even after reporting for Truthdig for 18 months now on how U.S. policy has been dangerously and recklessly destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, I am amazed at how much new information these cables reveal. Outside experts have been warning of the dangers of Pakistan nuclear proliferation for years. It is only because of WikiLeaks, however, that we now realize how deeply U.S. and allied officials are also concerned about the issue:
Ambassador Patterson reported that “our major concern has not been that an Islamic militant could steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in [Pakistani government] facilities could gradually smuggle enough fissile material out to eventually make a weapon and the vulnerability of weapons in transit” (2-4-09 cable).
A Sept. 22, 2009, cable regarding a meeting with U.K. expert Mariot Leslie reported that “the UK has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. ... In Leslie’s view, the risk of proliferation is a bigger threat than terrorism but it ranks lower than terrorism on the public’s list of perceived threats. She flagged efforts both by states and by terrorist groups to obtain nuclear weapons” (9-22-09 cable).
U.S. national intelligence officer Peter Lavoy reported that “Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world” (12-5-08 cable).
One Russian foreign ministry official explained that “Russia assesses that Islamists are not only seeking power in Pakistan but are also trying to get their hands on nuclear materials. ... There are 120,000-130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs, working in these facilities and protecting them. However, regardless of the clearance process for these people, there is no way to guarantee that all are 100% loyal and reliable. Extremist organizations have more opportunities to recruit people working in the nuclear and missile programs. Also, even if places are well protected, transportation of materials is a vulnerable point. In Pakistan, it is hard to guarantee the security of these materials during transportation” (undated cable). Since 59 percent of the Pakistani people regard the U.S. as an “enemy”, according to polling results, this means that it is likely that a significant, if smaller, portion of the 120,000 to 130,000 people “directly involved in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs” do so as well.
Ambassador Patterson reported that “one of the reasons Pakistan opposes the [nuclear proliferation] treaty is that it is building an arsenal of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons. Pakistani military planners believe that Pakistan needs to transform its arsenal to smaller, tactical weapons that could be used on the battlefield against Indian conventional capabilities. The result of this trend is the need for greater stocks of fissile material to feed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons requirement” (11-24-09 cable). She also described how the U.S.-India nuclear energy agreement has led Pakistan to develop even more nuclear weapons: “Pakistani officials perceive the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation initiative as having unshackled India’s nuclear weapons program. Prior to the initiative, they said, India faced a significant uranium supply constraint that forced it to choose literally between nuclear weapons or nuclear power. Now, however, India is able to secure foreign-supplied uranium for its civil nuclear power reactors, leaving it free to devote a greater share of its domestically-sourced uranium to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.” This was a key reason, she explained, why Pakistan was resisting the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and planning to build more nuclear weapons (11-24-09 cable).
While Pakistan was resisting the FMCT, Patterson wrote, “direct U.S. pressure is unlikely to convince them to support FMCT negotiations, and may even hurt efforts to move forward” (11-24-09 cable). Patterson describes the U.S.-Pakistani relationship as one of “mutual distrust,” saying that “the relationship is one of co-dependency we grudgingly admit—Pakistan knows the U.S. cannot afford to walk away; the U.S. knows Pakistan cannot survive without our support” (2-21-09 cable). That is, despite the fact that the Pakistani government depends on U.S. aid for its very survival, the U.S. has so bungled its overall Pakistan policy that it cannot meaningfully move to reduce the threat of Pakistani nuclear proliferation, e.g. by encouraging Pakistan to sign the FMCT.
These cables reveal a deep official concern about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear materials; however, none of this was shared with the American public. “We’ve given [the Pakistanis] assistance in improving their security arrangements over the past number of years. Based on the information available to us that gives us … comfort,” read a typical official statement by Defense Secretary Gates in December 2009. But as The New York Times reported on Nov. 30, 2010, on the nuclear fuel that Pakistan was supposed to transfer to the U.S., “the fuel is still there.” And as Pakistan continues to produce “nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world,” the danger is clearly increasing (12-5-08 cable).
The second major issue revealed by the leaked cables is that while U.S. and other Western officials fear Pakistani nuclear proliferation, they are pursuing policies that make a nuclear incident more likely. As the Russian foreign ministry official cited above makes clear, the issue for the U.S. is not a narrow one, meaning a specific effort to secure this or that plant. The U.S. can secure Pakistani’s nuclear materials only by changing its present overall policy. By turning the vast majority of Pakistanis against the U.S., American leaders have made Pakistan’s government reluctant to cooperate on nuclear matters and have therefore increased the danger of nuclear theft among the more than 100,000 Pakistani workers at nuclear facilities.