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
More

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.

Under these conditions the emergence of a nuclear-equipped splinter group from within the Pakistani establishment looks disturbingly plausible. Provoked by anger that Musharraf has made Pakistan a puppet of the United States, such a group would have not only a motive and the domestic political support for a nuclear terrorist act against America but also the organizational competence, the expertise, and the raw material to carry it out.

What to do about this combustible mixture of extreme political instability and nuclear capability is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing U.S. policymakers today. (Consider, for instance, how much simpler it is to deal with North Korea's nuclear program, which is controlled by a monolithic regime and not by layers of governmental subagencies that may have conflicting loyalties and ideologies.) Up to now the Bush Administration's response to this challenge has consisted of essentially three ingredients: trying to keep the Pakistani government on America's side in the war on terror (and the Administration deserves credit for carefully nurturing its relationship with Musharraf); examining the possibility of having American forces seize or neutralize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in an emergency; and blindly hoping that the worst does not occur. But hope, as the well-known saying at the Pentagon goes, is not a plan.

Recent history offers something of a model for how to proceed. In August of 1991 a group of conservatives in the Soviet security establishment attempted to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev. Tanks commanded by the coup plotters ringed the Kremlin; Gorbachev, on vacation in the southern part of the country, was placed under house arrest. In the weeks that followed, President George H.W. Bush announced that the United States would unilaterally remove all battlefield nuclear weapons and challenged the Soviet Union to do likewise. The coup was aborted, and Gorbachev responded to Bush's initiative by launching a process that eventually withdrew thousands of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons from the outer reaches of the empire, helping to ensure that the looming dissolution of the Soviet Union would not create more than a dozen new nuclear states. When President Bill Clinton took office, he focused on eliminating the strategic nuclear arsenals that remained in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. By the end of 1996 every one of the nuclear weapons in those states had been deactivated and returned to Russia. Pakistan's situation today is not identical to Russia's in the early 1990s, though the problem of diffused control of nuclear weapons is analogous. But the same lesson applies: it's that alertness in this arena can yield positive results.

Most of what has to be done to secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials will have to be done by the Pakistanis themselves—with American encouragement. One of the more enduring legacies of the Musharraf administration may be the Nuclear Command Authority, completed in December of 2003. Designed to impose greater centralized control over the Khan Research Laboratories and the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission, the NCA is headed by Musharraf and vice-chaired by Pakistan's Prime Minister, and is divided into two units—for nuclear weapons and for nuclear scientific personnel—each led by a three-star general.

One option would be for the United States to supply Pakistan with a technology called "permissive action links," which would require Musharraf himself to enter an electronic code before any of the country's nuclear weapons could be deployed. Judging from my conversations with Musharraf last winter, however, the delicacy and sensitivity—and, given the constraints of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the legal difficulty—of such a project can hardly be exaggerated. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is designed first and foremost to deter India. As noted, Pakistan fears that India might locate its nuclear arsenal and destroy its nuclear weapons in a first strike. (Every nuclear power has had similar fears in the early stages of its program.) No reasonable country would divulge information that would leave its arsenal vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. And even though Pakistan is now an ally of the United States in the war against al-Qaeda, can Musharraf be confident that if the United States provides him with permissive action links, it will not retain some undisclosed ability to disable Pakistan's weapons? An offer of U.S. technical and financial assistance—along with diplomatic assistance in the dispute over Kashmir—might incline Musharraf to let us help him secure electronic control over his arsenal. But we must remember that pushing for too much too soon could destabilize Musharraf—or even lead to his overthrow by someone who is more sympathetic to bin Laden than to the United States.

Our unlikely savior here might be, of all countries, China. For many years China has acted as an ally, mentor, and supplier of arms to Pakistan, and the two countries are united by their antagonism toward India. If China were to embrace comprehensive security and control of its own arsenal, and be certified by the United States as having done so, then perhaps Musharraf would permit China and the United States each to review the security procedures for half of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials, so that neither country could have full knowledge of all of Pakistan's arsenal.

The actions required to neutralize the threat of Pakistani proliferation are ambitious; a measure of realism is necessary. But realism need not mean defeatism. In the early 1960s John F. Kennedy predicted that "by 1970 there may be ten nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, fifteen or twenty." If those nations with the technical capacity to build nuclear weapons had gone ahead and done so, Kennedy's prediction would have come true. But his warning helped awaken the world to the dangers of unconstrained proliferation. The United States and other nations negotiated international constraints, provided security guarantees, offered inducements, and threatened punishment. Today 187 nations—including scores that have the technical capacity to build nuclear arsenals—have renounced nuclear weapons and committed themselves to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty; only eight states (not the "fifteen or twenty" of Kennedy's prediction) have nuclear weapons. The challenge now is to achieve similar success in blocking the seemingly inexorable path to a nuclear 9/11.

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).
Jump to comments
Presented by

Graham Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In