National Security October 2004

Tick, Tick, Tick

Pakistan is a nuclear time bomb—perhaps the greatest threat to American security today. Here's how to defuse it

Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 have I been as frightened by a single news story as I was by the revelation late last year that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, had been selling nuclear technology and services on the black market. The story began to break last summer, after U.S. and British intelligence operatives intercepted a shipment of parts for centrifuges (which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs as well as fuel) on its way from Dubai to Libya. The centrifuges turned out to have been designed by Khan, and before long investigators had uncovered what the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has called a "Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation"—a decades-old illicit market in nuclear materials, designs, technologies, and consulting services, all run out of Pakistan.

The Pakistani government's response to the scandal was not reassuring. Khan made a four-minute televised speech on February 4 asserting that "there was never any kind of authorization for these activities by the government." He took full responsibility for his actions and asked for a pardon, which was immediately granted by President Pervez Musharraf, who essentially buried the affair. Today Pakistan's official position remains that no member of Mu-sharraf's government had any concrete knowledge of the illicit transfer—an assertion that U.S. intelligence officials in Pakistan and elsewhere dismiss as absurd. Meanwhile, Pakistani investigators have reportedly questioned a grand total of eleven people from among the country's 6,000 nuclear scientists and 45,000 nuclear workers, and have refused to allow either the United States or the IAEA access to Khan for questioning.

Pakistan's nuclear complex poses two main threats. The first—highlighted by Khan's black-market network—is that nuclear weapons, know-how, or materials will find their way into the hands of terrorists. For instance, we have learned that in August of 2001, even as the final planning for 9/11 was under way, Osama bin Laden received two former officials of Pakistan's atomic-energy program—Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid—at a secret compound near Kabul. Over the course of three days of intense conversation bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, grilled Mahmood and Majid about how to make weapons of mass destruction. After Mahmood and Majid were arrested, on October 23, 2001, Mahmood told Pakistani interrogation teams, working in concert with the CIA, that Osama bin Laden had expressed a keen interest in nuclear weapons and had sought the scientists' help in recruiting other Pakistani nuclear experts who could provide expertise in the mechanics of bomb-making. CIA Director George Tenet found the report of Mahmood and Majid's meeting with bin Laden so disturbing that he flew directly to Islamabad to confront President Musharraf.

This was not the first time that Pakistani agents had rendered nuclear assistance to dangerous actors: in 1997 Pakistani nuclear scientists made secret trips to North Korea, providing technical support for that country's nuclear-weapons program in exchange for Pyongyang's help in developing long-range missiles. And not long ago, according to American intelligence, another Pakistani nuclear scientist negotiated with Libyan agents over the price of nuclear-bomb designs. Pakistan's nuclear program has long been a leaky vessel; the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has deemed the country "the world's No. 1 nuclear proliferator."

Clearly, there is a significant danger that the black market will put Pakistani nukes (or nuclear material and technical knowledge) in terrorist hands—if it hasn't already. But there is a second, equally significant danger: that a coup might topple Musharraf and leave all or some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons under the control of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or some other militant Islamic group (or, indeed, under the control of more than one). Part of the problem is that in order to keep its focal enemy, India, from destroying its arsenal in a pre-emptive strike, Pakistan has hidden its nuclear weapons throughout the country; some of them may be in regions that are effectively under fundamentalist Muslim control. Moreover, Pakistan's official alliance with the United States in the war on terror has only increased the danger posed by al-Qaeda sympathizers within its nuclear establishment. Although Musharraf has pledged his "unstinting cooperation in the fight against terrorism," not all the thousands of officers in Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies have signed on. After all, until 9/11 some of them were working closely with members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nor, for that matter, does Pakistan's general population support Musharraf's alliance with the United States. A poll this past March asked Pakistani citizens which leaders in international affairs they viewed favorably. Only seven percent said George W. Bush—and 65 percent said Osama bin Laden.

The uneasy contradiction between Musharraf's pro-American foreign policy and the widespread anti-Americanism within Pakistan has forced Pakistani policymakers to walk a razor's edge. Musharraf faces the clear and present threat of assassination: twice in the past year he has narrowly escaped attempts on his life. When I spoke to him not long after the second of those attempts, he said he thought he had used up many of his nine lives.

It may not take a bullet to wrest control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from Musharraf. In local elections held in October of 2002 a coalition of fundamentalist parties won command of the government in the North West Frontier Province. The group, known as Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), offered a simple platform: pro-Taliban, anti-American, and against all Pakistani involvement in the war on terror. MMA is now the third largest party in Pakistan's parliament; from its new position of strength it has spoken vigorously about the need to regain the honor Pakistan has lost through its subservience to the United States and its struggle with India, with which it has been engaged in a harrowing game of nuclear brinkmanship. To win a vote of confidence that would allow him to serve out his presidential term (which ends in 2007), Musharraf was recently compelled to make a deal with the Islamist parties to step down as head of the military by the end of this year. If all that weren't disconcerting enough, the region the MMA controls happens to be the very one where Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are currently believed to be hiding.

Presented by

Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, at Harvard University, served as assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton and special adviser to the Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan. His most recent book is Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (2004).

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