Battalions of reporters and analysts who have been
scouring the tinderbox region of South Asia and Central Asia since October 7--the
start of the bombing of Taliban and al-Qaeda hideouts--have missed the
significance of one of the biggest stories unfolding right under their noses in
Pakistan. There is a good deal of circumstantial evidence that Americans have
taken charge of the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and fissionable
One can piece this story together from apparently unconnected bits of
information, much of it public, that I have confirmed with public officials whom
I trust. In order to avoid humiliating Pakistan, neither the United States nor
Pakistan will confirm this shift--especially since every Pakistani regime to date
has projected the possession of nuclear weapons as a matter of national pride and
as a way to keep its neighbor India in check. But a big hint of U.S. involvement
came from Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar himself.
Addressing a press conference in Islamabad on November 1, Sattar disclosed
that Pakistan had accepted an offer made by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
to train Pakistanis "for security and protection of nuclear assets." Sattar
added: "Pakistani experts would be apprised of the security measures being
applied by the United States [emphasis added]." If the foreign minister is to
be believed, then even before Pakistani personnel had been informed or trained,
the United States was applying security measures with regard to Pakistan's
Several additional factors indicate that Sattar was hinting that America has
effective control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons. One is Pakistan's need to
allay a spate of stories in the American press suggesting that fundamentalist
generals sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda might unseat General Pervez
Musharraf in a coup and hand over nuclear material to Islamic radicals. In fact,
Musharraf is surprisingly well entrenched. But the United States, as part of its
new alliance with Pakistan, nonetheless needed stronger assurances that its
nuclear arsenal was secure.
A second clue is an indirect confirmation by Indian Defense Minister George
Fernandes: Without any provocation, he announced on October 30 that Pakistan's
nuclear assets were in safe hands. This should have raised a lot of eyebrows, but
it did not. And in case there was any doubt, Sattar, according to a report in
Karachi's Dawn newspaper, "surprised" local and foreign correspondents by
walking down to the foreign office briefing hall to read out a statement that
declared, among other things, that "Pakistan's strategic assets are under
foolproof custodial controls." He then proceeded to mention the offer made by
Powell to teach Pakistani experts how to employ the security measures that the
United States already had in place.
Sattar gave these assurances partly in order to deny a story in The New
Yorker in which writer Seymour Hersh suggested that U.S. special-operations
troops were training with Israeli commandos for a possible mission to "take out"
Pakistan's nuclear warheads and prevent them from being transferred to al-Qaeda.
Sattar is a seasoned diplomat who has spent several decades in
the Pakistan Foreign Service and has held the most prestigious postings that the
service has to offer. He chooses his words with extreme care, as I discovered
when I covered him in the early 1990s, when he was Pakistan's ambassador to
India. He is very precise when speaking on the record to journalists and has a
knack of conveying the exact sense that he wants to convey.
So Sattar's choice of words is telling. About "custodial control" of the
nuclear assets, he said that "dedicated formations of specially equipped forces
have been deployed for the security of Pakistan nuclear installations and
assets"--without specifying whose custody and whose forces.
Fernandes's words are equally revealing: "Those concerned with Pakistan's
nuclear weapons are responsible people." He did not say that the
Pakistanis guarding the nuclear assets were responsible people.
Additionally, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton has quoted Fernandes as
quelling doubts about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
It is intriguing that, all of a sudden, U.S. and Indian officials stopped
leaking stories about the dangers of unsecured nuclear material in Pakistan and
began issuing reassuring statements that the weapons were in safe hands. Yes, but
in whose hands?
Colin Powell's offer of help in securing these assets was disclosed after he
visited Islamabad and Delhi on October 15. But this may have been part of the
ultimatum that the United States had issued to Pakistan in the first few days
after September 11: Powell called Musharraf and insisted that Pakistan choose
sides. Did the ultimatum mention nuclear-weapons security?
By the time the bombing of Afghanistan began, Musharraf had, according to a
report in The Washington Post, ordered an "emergency redeployment" of the
nuclear arsenal to at least six new locations. He had also begun relocating
critical nuclear components. The threat to his prized weapons was patently
manifest. He used this opportunity to reshuffle his top generals and create a
strategic planning division within the nuclear program. Musharraf had even
thought of moving his nuclear warheads for safekeeping to China, a friendly
neighbor, according to The New York Times. China had clandestinely aided
Pakistan's development programs for missiles and nuclear weapons.
Further confirmation that outside controls were being imposed
was provided by the December 2 arrival in Islamabad of two Italian arms-control
scientists. Dawn reported that they were there to "prepare a report on the
status of nuclear security in Pakistan." The bland account of their arrival
Sources said the visiting scientists, Prof Paolo Cotta-Ramusino
and Prof Maurizio Martellini, would be looking at certain key questions relating
to safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, the percentage of nuclear weapons that
are assembled, effects of the Sept 11 attacks and the Afghan crisis on the
nuclear posture of Pakistan, Pakistan's reaction to possible Indian attack and
the public perception of the nuclear weapons. The report would later be submitted
to the Italian government, they said.
The scientists, visiting under the auspices of the foreign ministry of Italy,
have held deliberations with foreign ministry officials and think-tanks to
assess the safety of nuclear weapons and the risks of proliferation of weapons of
mass destruction to terrorists and rogue states, the sources said.
Dawn then went on to comment that some of the questions being asked by
the scientists "have raised concern in the security establishment" of Pakistan.
Here, then, was Pakistan's leading Englishlanguage newspaper reporting that two
European scientists were going around the country questioning Pakistani
scientists about the extent to which the country's nuclear assets were weaponized
and about whether some of these weapons could have been passed on to al-Qaeda
terrorists. The Pakistan government did not deny this report or its contents,
just as there had been no denial of Sattar's statement that the United States was
applying security measures to Pakistan's nuclear assets.
It is inconceivable that these senior European arms-control experts are making
their rounds without the full knowledge and collaboration of the United States.
One can surmise that the United States has apparently gone about verifying the
status and number of Pakistan's nuclear weapons in a clever, roundabout manner
calculated to save Musharraf from embarrassment at a time when America still
needs his help to sort out the mess in Afghanistan. More remarkable is the fact
that the military government in Islamabad allowed a Pakistani newspaper to report
The scope of inquiries in Pakistan leaves nothing to the imagination. One need
only quote a few paragraphs from the Dawn report published on December 6:
In terms of nuclear proliferation risks the scientists are
exploring the possible links of Pakistani nuclear scientists with the Afghan
Taliban and the Arab Afghans in the past and present scenarios, effectiveness of
control over Pakistani fissile material storage and production facilities,
possible transfer of illicit nuclear material through Pakistan and Afghanistan
and the effectiveness of control of Pakistan's radioactive sources and their
potential illicit traffic.
They said that in terms of chemical and biological weapons the scientists have
questions about effective control of materials of concern for chemical and
biological weapons ... and transfer of illicit biological, chemical agents and
dual use equipment through the border.
Some of the questions being asked relate to transfer of nuclear scientists and
experts to Afghanistan or any other country and the impact of recent events on
the scientific community, particularly on the community of scientists involved in
military and defence activities. The sources said the scientists would also
report the impact of Pakistan's nuclear programme on the role of Islamic
countries in the international arena and whether Pakistan's nuclearization has
contributed to any change in the role of the Islamic countries.
Are these among the "security measures being applied by the
United States" that Sattar spoke of on November 1? Are there even more direct
"security measures," including explicit U.S. operational control of Pakistan's
There are two possibilities: Either the Pakistani government is engaged in
an elaborate charade, employing Italian decoys and fooling both the Americans and
the Indians (given the immensely high stakes of loose nuclear weapons in the
hands of Islamic radicals, this is highly improbable), or Washington has taken
effective control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal while going to great lengths to
It is not surprising that the Indian defense minister should express happiness
that "those concerned with Pakistan's nuclear program are responsible people": He
knows that these concerned, responsible people are not Pakistanis.
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