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How the U.S. Has Secretly Backed Pakistan’s Nuclear Program From Day One


“If the worst, the unthinkable, were to happen,” Hillary Clinton recently told Fox News, “and this advancing Taliban encouraged and supported by Al Qaeda and other extremists were to essentially topple the government … then they would have keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan.”  Many will note that the extremists  posing this unthinkable prospect were set up in business by the U.S. in the first place.  Very well buried is the fact that the nuclear arsenal that must not be allowed to fall into the hands of our former allies has been itself the object of U.S. encouragement over the years and is to this very day in receipt of crucial U.S. financial assistance and technical support.

Back in 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, intent on his own jihad against the USSR, declared that  the “Afghan resistance” should be supplied with money and arms.  That, of course, required full Pakistani cooperation, which would, Brzezinski underlined, “require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy.”  In other words, Pakistan was free to get on with building a bomb so long as we could arm the people who have subsequently come back to haunt us.  Asked for his views on Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, Ronald Reagan replied “I just don’t think it’s any of our business.”  During the years that the infamous A.Q. Khan was peddling his uranium enrichment technology around the place, his shipping manager was a CIA agent, whose masters seem to have had little problem with allowing the trade to go forward.

Now comes word from inside the Obama government that little has changed.  “Most of the aid we’ve sent them over the past few years has been diverted into their nuclear program,” a senior national security official in the current administration recently told me.   Most of this diverted aid — $5.56 billion as of a year ago –  was officially designated  “Coalition Support Funds” for Pakistani military operations against the Taliban.  It may be that this diversion came as a terrible shock to Washington, but the money has been routinely handed over essentially without accounting being required from the Pakistanis.  The GAO has huffed at items such as the $30 million shelled out for non-existent roads, of the $1.5 million for “naval vehicles damaged in combat” but that was as far as public complaints went.  In the meantime, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen confirmed recently, the Pakistanis have been urgently increasing their nuclear weapons production.

A former national security official with knowledge of the policy explained this insouciance to me.   “We want to get in there and manage [their nuclear program]. If we manage it, we can make sure they don’t start testing, or start a war.”  In other words, the U.S. is helping the Pakistanis to modernize their nuclear arsenal in hopes that the U.S. will thereby gain a measure of control.  The official aim of U.S. technical support, at an estimated cost of $100 million a year, is to render the Pakistani weapons safer, i.e.,  less likely to go off if dropped, and more “secure”, meaning out of the reach of our old friends the extremists.

However,  in pursuit of this objective, it is inevitable that the U.S. is not only rendering the warheads more operationally reliable, we are also transferring the technology required to design more sophisticated warheads without having to test them, a system known as “stockpile stewardship.”

Conceived after the U.S. forswore live testing in 1993 as a means to “test” weapons through computer simulations, this vastly expensive program not only ensures the weapons’ reliability (at least in theory) but also the viability of new and improved designs.   In reality, the stewardship program has been as much a boondoggle for the politically powerful nuclear laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos as anything else, so outreach in the form of assistance to the Pakistanis in this area can only gratify our own weaponeers.

“If you’re not confident that weapons are safe to handle, you’re more likely to keep them in the basement,” says nuclear command and control expert Bruce Blair, President of the World Security Institute.  “The military is always pressuring to deploy the weapons, which requires an increase in readiness.” In 2008 Blair himself was approached by the Pakistani military seeking advice on means to render their weapons more secure.  Their aim, he says, was clearly to render their nuclear force  “mature,” and  “operational.”  In the same way, says Blair, a few years ago an Indian military delegation turned up at the Russian Impulse Design Bureau in St. Petersburg, to ask for help on making their weapons safer to handle.  “They said they wanted to be able to assure their political leadership that their weapons were safe enough to be deployed.”

Pakistan’s drive to build more nukes is an inevitable by-product of the 2008 nuclear cooperation deal with India that overturned U.S. law and gave the Indians access to US nuclear technology, not to mention massive arms sales, despite their ongoing bomb program.

The deal blew an enormous hole in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but initial protests from congressional doves were soon smothered under human-wave assaults by arms company and nuclear industry lobbyists.  The Israelis lent  additional and potent assistance on Capital Hill.  Not coincidentally, Israeli arms dealers, promised a significant slice of the action, have garnered at least $1.5 billion worth of orders from Delhi. (The respected Israeli daily Haaretz has highlighted Indian media reports that the bribes involved totaled $120 million.)  Nuclear power’s handmaiden, the global warming lobby, was also a wellspring of ardent support, led by Rajendra  Pachauri, the Indian railroad engineer who is Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which shared Al Gore’s Nobel prize.)  Even the Dalai Lama was drafted in to use his influence with impressionable members of congress.

The consequent success in overturning a longstanding arms control treaty, which in turn has led to the U.S. extending a helping hand to India’s nuclear rivals in Pakistan, should only be seen as the wave of the future.  Instead of foaming at the Iranian nuclear program, we should be standing at the ready to oversee their design of safer, more reliable nukes, and after that, who knows?  North Korea’s bomb probably need work too.

ANDREW COCKBURN writes about national security and related matters. His most recent book is  Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy. He is the co-producer of American Casino, the feature documentary on the ongoing financial collapse. He can be reached at

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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