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Pakistan's Short Fuse

A new book, Deception, details the rise and menace of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program—and how the U.S. did nothing to stand in its way.

| Mon Nov. 19, 2007 4:00 AM EST

When it became clear that American-led Gulf War forces would defeat Hussein's army, the Pakistani military about-faced, dropping Iraq and approaching Iran. In a meeting with the prime minister, "Beg came straight out with it," a Pakistani official told Levy and Scott-Clark. "‘We should transfer nuclear technology to a friendly state, for the sum of $12 billion.' By friendly state he meant Iran, and with that figure Beg could have underwritten the defense budget for a decade to come."

Later, in the summer of 2003, IAEA inspectors, who had been tracking Iran's nuclear weapons program since the 1990s, would observe the "remarkable similarities between the Iranian centrifuges and those acquired then adapted by Khan." According to Deception, "swipe samples taken from the pilot plant at Nantz revealed particles of highly enriched uranium that could not have been produced inside Iran, as they were enriched well beyond the capabilities of the Iranian rig."

The Iranians eventually admitted they had imported used components, but refused to identify the source. Realizing the jig was up, Iran actually approached the United States, offering what the book calls an incredible deal. "In return for the United States addressing Iran's security concerns, the lifting of economic sanctions and normalization of relations. . .Tehran was offering to cut off support to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad" and rein in Hezbollah in Lebanon. Secretary of State Colin Powell favored the deal, but the Pentagon and White House rejected it, and continued efforts to destabilize this "axis of evil" country. Beyond that, the U.S. took no action related to the obvious Pakistani sales to Iran, and sandbagged an effort by the British to address Pakistan's rampant nuclear proliferation. The road laid at that time may yet lead to war with Iran.

The Pakistanis also appear to have engaged in nuclear dealings with the Saudis, our long-term allies in the Middle East. According to Levy, by the early 1990s, the Saudis already had bought nuclear-capable missiles from China, in a deal brokered by Pakistan. Then "the Saudis requested warheads for the missiles and gave millions to the Pakistani nuclear program by way of a down payment." Officials at the IAEA suspected the deal, and so did German and Israeli intelligence agencies. But, again, no one could get Washington to assist in getting to the bottom of it, Levy says. One U.S. nuclear specialist interviewed for Deception explained, "When the Saudis said there was no Pakistani deal, our side, without any further investigation, accepted the answer. We took an entirely different approach when the guy across the border in Iraq said: ‘I have no WMD.'" The Pakistanis, it turned out, also sold materials to Libya and offered them to Syria.

When George W. Bush first took office, even some of the hawks on his team expressed the desire to address Pakistan's nuclear program, which had continued apace after the coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. But after 9/11, according to Levy and Scott-Clark, "the Bush administration weighed [Pakistan's] value as a potential ally against the harm Pakistan's nuclear program could do, just as Carter and Reagan had done before. Despite overwhelming evidence of a building nuclear crisis, in which a state leaking nuclear technology was also concealing terrorists who were seeking it, the White House decided to do nothing."

The White House again began approving aid to Pakistan, which has totaled $10 billion since September 2001. And when both Libya and Iran made disclosures to the IAEA about the source of their nuclear technologies, Pakistan offered up a convenient fall guy in A. Q. Khan. In February 2004, Khan confessed on national television that he had been involved in "unauthorized proliferation activities." Pakistani nuclear materials spread around the globe, the story went, had all been sold on the black market by Khan, without the knowledge of the military or the government, which professed to be shocked by his confession. Khan was arrested, but never tried, and Musharraf will not allow him to be questioned by Western countries or international agencies—a restriction to which Bush agreed, still loyal to his man in Islamabad.

Just this week, the New York Times broke the story (after holding it back for three years at the request of the White House) that "Over the past six years, the Bush administration has spent almost $100 million on a highly classified program" to help Musharraf "secure his country's nuclear weapons." Nevertheless, the story continues, "with the future of that country's leadership in doubt, debate is intensifying about whether Washington has done enough to help protect the warheads and laboratories, and whether Pakistan's reluctance to reveal critical details about its arsenal has undercut the effectiveness of the continuing security effort." In fact, according to an op-ed in last Sunday's Times, protecting Pakistan's domestic nuclear arsenal may soon become another job for American troops.

I asked Adrian Levy about the crisis that has come to a head in Pakistan in recent months, with the explosive visit of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in October, followed by Musharraf's November 3 crackdown and imposition of so-called emergency rule. He spoke of the by now widely known behind-the-scenes dealings between Bhutto and Musharraf over a possible power-sharing agreement—dealings that have broken down but may not, Levy believes, be completely dead.

The United States has been involved here as well, seeking a solution that provides at least the veneer of democracy, while still preserving Musharraf's rule; the Pentagon wants to see the military remain in power, even though the State Department has been warning since 2001 that this is a doomed strategy, certain to advance destabilization. Levy and Scott-Clark spoke with Bhutto just before and just after her return to Pakistan in October, and she said that in any power-sharing agreement, she would have to "give up foreign policy, the WMD program, internal and external security, and elements of the financial portfolio as well," Levy reports.

Perhaps Musharaff can save himself by yielding more power to Bhutto, who is growing bolder as the crisis develops. But it is also possible that the military may cut Musharaff out, says Levy, forging an alliance with Bhutto. "I think [the military] will accept slipping out of power for now, and may well in the future evolve into a political force, as the military has in Turkey and Thailand," he says. The military currently owns 12 percent of all the land in Pakistan, and as businessmen probably favors moderation in the long term. "But that is long term, and this evolution depends on the West building and supporting a democratic movement in Pakistan that can resist or stand up to and contain the military."

Such an evolution seems unlikely, given the American government's long and checkered history with Pakistan—of overlooking even nuclear proliferation in the interest of furthering its own flawed foreign-policy agenda.

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