How the West summoned up a nuclear nightmare in Pakistan - Times Online
How the West summoned up a nuclear nightmare in Pakistan
Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark reveal how misguided deals with Pakistan have created a terrifying threat of nuclear terrorism
General Pervez Musharraf was surprised. Visiting New York for a session of the UN, the last thing the Pakistani president expected was to be confronted with evidence of his country’s secret sales of nuclear bomb technology and equipment to members of the “axis of evil”.
Yet here on the polished wooden table of Musharraf’s hotel suite, George Tenet, director of the CIA, was laying out a sheaf of incriminating evidence.
There were intricate drawings of Pakistan’s P-1 uranium-enrich-ing centrifuge, with part numbers, dates and signatures. And there were details of the activities of Abdul Qadeer “A Q” Khan, the so-called Father of the Pakistani Bomb: his travels around the world, bank statements, even paperwork showing what his organisation had offered for sale and to which countries.
A senior Musharraf aide described it disingenuously as “the most embarrassing moment in the president’s life” – not because of the evidence but because he had felt Pakistan was on a long leash as it was integral to the Americans’ war on terror.
It was only three months since President George W Bush had cancelled a $1 billion debt and instigated a new $3 billion military and economic assistance package for Pakistan.
“Now the leash was being wound in, but Musharraf got over his surprise. He moved on and thought, so be it. He was a survivor. Pakistan was a survivor. We would adapt to a new reality,” a source said.
But he was not going to confess all: “Musharraf would play dumb until he ascertained what the US knew and whom we could blame.”
The general feigned ignorance. But everyone in the room during this “confrontation” four years ago knew that they were involved in a charade.
American officials knew that Musharraf had known about the nuclear trade all along. And Washington had itself not only turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear bomb project for decades but had covered it up for imperative geopolitical reasons, even when Islamabad began trading its secret technology.
By 2003 there was mounting evidence – still kept from Capitol Hill and the UK parliament – that Pakistan’s clients now encompassed North Korea, Iran and Libya and probably other countries and individuals too.
Britain had privately been pressing America to tell Musharraf it had to stop. In October 2003 MI6 uncovered Pakistani nuclear material on a boat heading for Libya. But the consensus in Washington was that saving Pakistan’s vulnerable (and valuable) president mattered more than prosecuting the guilty.
A senior British Foreign Office source explained: “He would come up with his own framework for survival and we would help him get through it, as long as the dirty deals were wound up. It was a compromise struck in the world of realpolitik.”
The details were agreed between Musharraf and Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, at a meeting in Islamabad. A drama was conceived that drew from Musharraf a promise to shut down Pakistan’s nuclear black market in return for winning continued US support for his unelected regime.
It was agreed that A Q Khan and his aides would be arrested and blamed for “privately” engaging in proliferation. The country’s military elite – who had sponsored Khan’s work and encouraged sales of technology to reduce their reliance on American aid – were left in the clear.
Khan was made to admit his “unauthorised activities” on television. Bush subscribed to the deceit, announcing: “Khan has confessed his crimes and his top associates are out of business . . . President Musharraf has promised to share all the information he learns about the Khan network, and has assured us that his country will never again be a source of proliferation.”
The truth was that Musharraf had been reducing Khan’s role in the nuclear enterprise and had pushed him into official retirement. The nuclear programme and trading were – and are – completely under the military government’s control. And proliferation did not stop.
Four years on, Khan is still under house arrest, and Musharraf is still in power. In a further exercise in “realpolitik”, another political deal is being stitched together to keep him in the presidency as America’s best hope of maintaining stability in this geopolitically vital but desperately unstable country.
Musharraf’s term of office comes to an end in November. Under the constitution he cannot win another term if he remains chief of army staff. Urged on by Washington, he has been discussing a power-sharing agreement with Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister.
He intends, however, to keep hold of foreign affairs, the armed forces, internal and external security portfolios, the nuclear deterrent and the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programme, according to Pakistani sources.
America’s reason for sustaining Musharraf in power is that the alternative is even less appealing. The upper reaches of the army, and the retired military elite, are rife with Islamists – a legacy of General Zia ul-Haq, the zealot who both ramped up the nuclear programme and gave the military a religious mission when he was president from 1978-88.
The tragedy is that America’s gamble on Musharraf has not paid off. Washington’s nightmare is a nuclear Pakistan controlled by fundamentalists. Yet Musharraf presides over a country that is not only still a nuclear proliferator but the real source of the Islamist terrorism menacing the West.
Al-Qaeda has merged with Pakistan’s home-grown terrorists, spawning new camps, new graduates and new missions abroad – including the July attacks in London in 2005.
At least 17 of the worst Sunni terror groups banned by the US and the UN have been allowed to operate openly and launch recruitment drives, using flimsy cover-names, most of them operating within sight of the Pakistan military.
The Taliban reformed after Musharraf signed a secret pact with its supporters in Waziristan – the tribal region of northwest Pakistan – in 2004, and again in 2006, leading to what Nato commanders in Afghanistan complained of as a 300% increase in attacks on UK and Afghan forces.
US intelligence sources have accused elements of Pakistan’s intelligence establishment and army – including General Mo-hammad Aziz Khan, who until October 2004 was Musharraf’s chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – of coaching and sheltering the neo-Taliban.
Pakistan today stands on the failed states index at position 12, just below Haiti, in worse shape than North Korea and Burma. Yet Musharraf’s government has been rewarded with a 45,000% increase in US aid since 2001, taking assistance levels to more than $10 billion, five times more than received by any other country (including Israel).
On his only visit to Pakistan, in March 2006, Bush flew in at night, unannounced, without lights. As the US knew only too well, America’s enemies had access to US-supplied Stinger missiles that Pakistan’s former army chiefs had declined to help the CIA claw back after the Afghan war.
Bush never got near to the people of Pakistan. A heavy security blanket enveloped Islamabad, which was patrolled by thousands of riot police and para-troopers while US Black Hawks buzzed the skies which were empty of any commercial traffic.
After Bush’s visit, Eliza Manningham-Buller, then the director of MI5, made an unusual outing in public to warn that “resilient networks” of terror in Britain and elsewhere in Europe were being “directed by al-Qaeda in Pakistan”.
Pakistan’s unsecured nuclear arsenal is increasingly vulnerable as terrorists gain new footholds in Islamabad. According to a recent poll of 100 US foreign policy experts by the Centre for American Progress and the Carnegie Endowment, both in Washington, Pakistan poses today’s greatest nuclear threat to the world.
Robert Gallucci, who as a young US diplomat tracked its nuclear programme from inception in 1972 and ended his career as Bush’s adviser on WMD, describes Pakistan as “the number one threat to the world at this moment in time”.
He warns: “If it all goes off, a nuclear bomb in a US or European city, I’m sure we will find ourselves looking in Pakistan’s direction.”
Furthermore, disturbing new intelligence suggests that proliferation has not stopped. Last year, a 55-page highly classified “early warning” assessment was produced by Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, taking in the pooled knowledge of British, French and Belgian spies.
Its authors found that a range of materials and components were still being procured by Pakistan that “clearly exceeds” what Islamabad needed for its domestic nuclear programme. One of the report’s authors said: “They were buying to sell, and it could no longer be hived off as rogue scientists doing the deed.”
The report said that KRL labs, Khan’s old facility, had continued to coordinate the Pakistani sales programme and now ran a network of front companies in Europe, the Gulf and southeast Asia which deployed all the old tricks: disguising end-user certificates by shielding the ultimate destinations from sellers, and lying on customs manifests.
The Pakistan-North Korean relationship was still very much alive, the report stated. Islamabad had hooked Pyongyang into its nuclear procurement network in western Europe, buying raw materials and machinery for production lines in North Korea that were churning out cheap centrifuge components. Pakistan was one of the key customers, selling the parts on to other clients.
Most alarming was the finding that hundreds of thousands of components amassed by Khan had vanished since he had been put out of operation. In other words, Pakistan has continued to sell nuclear weapons technology (to clients known and unknown) even as Musharraf denies it – which means either that the sales are being carried out with his secret blessing or that he is no more in control of Pakistan’s nuclear programme than he is of the bands of jihadis in his country.
Some of Pakistan’s generals are gleeful and even unguarded about the trade, seeing it as proof of their apparently untouchable status as a prime ally in the US war on terror, but also as evidence of their rapid industrialisation.
Pakistan has learnt to manufacture the restricted components and materials, electronic equipment and super-strong metals needed for a ready-made nuclear weapons facility which they were selling to anyone who could come up with the cash.
General Khalid Mahmud Arif, formerly in charge of the nuclear programme and still an influen-tial figure in military circles, said: “Once we skulked around. Now we have a new generation of men and the technology. We have labs and the industry to rival the West.”
He said Pakistan was producing super-strength maraging (low carbon) steel which is primarily used for making centrifuges with which Pakistan enriched uranium to weapons grade. It was also making high-frequency inverters which regulate power to the centrifuges.
“They used to come from the UK and now we are selling them ourselves,” he said. “Maraging steel too – once we struggled but now, finally, we are manufacturing it at the People’s Steel Mill and exporting it. It is better than you can get outside.”
For many years the US and Europe have barred the export of both items to Pakistan.
Musharraf has consistently hidden bad news from his American backers. Two particularly worrying incidents were recently disclosed by sources close to those involved.
In 2001, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, had proof that Osama Bin Laden had received in person two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists at his secret HQ in Afghanistan. Both had become Islamist radicals in retirement.
According to the son of one of them, Bin Laden told them he had succeeded in acquiring highly enriched uranium from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and he wanted their help to turn it into a bomb. Amazed, they explained that while they could help with the science of fissile materials, they were not weapons designers.
Soon afterwards, a secret army audit discovered evidence that 40 canisters of highly enriched uranium (HEU), the feedstuff for a nuclear bomb, were missing from the Kahuta enrichment labs outside Islamabad after A Q Khan retired.
Dr Muhammad Shafiq ur-Rehman, an insider who is the son of one of Khan’s former key aides, revealed: “They could only account for 80 out of a supposed 120 canisters.”
The ISI reasoned that some of the drums had probably gone to North Korea, and some to Iran and probably Libya, according to a former ISI officer.
Enough highly enriched uranium remained at large to fuel 1,000 dirty bombs or a sizable nuclear device. All it would take for a doomsday scenario is 100lb of HEU – a mass the size of a sugar bag as the material is heavier than lead – to get into the hands of terrorists with the right expertise.
Split into two loads to prevent accidental fission, it could be machined into semi-spheres, loaded into a cannon-style device, and driven in the back of a van to a western target.
Behind this desperately worrying state of affairs lies a grand deception. For three decades, consecutive US administrations, Republican and Democrat, as well as governments in Britain and other European countries, allowed Pakistan to acquire highly restricted nuclear technology. Key US agencies were then misdirected and countermanded in order to disguise how Pakistan had sold it on.
Intelligence gathering in the US was blunted while the departments of state and defence were corralled into backing the White House agenda and forced to side-step Congress and break federal laws. Officials who tried to stop the charade were purged.
The deceit began under President Jimmy Carter; but it burgeoned under Ronald Reagan, who used Pakistan as a springboard for American aid to the antiSoviet jihad in Afghanistan.
US officials converged on Islamabad carrying cash and the message that America would ignore the growing nuclear programme – while Reagan publicly insisted that nonproliferation remained a primary policy.
A flavour of the duplicity comes from Robert Gallucci, who was director of the bureau of near eastern and south Asian affairs at the State Department in 1982 at a time when the Reagan administration was desperately struggling to suppress evidence that Khan was designing a bomb.
After British intelligence caught the Khan network shopping in the UK for reflective shields made from beryllium, which could boost the power of a nuclear device, Reagan sent General Vernon Walters, a former CIA deputy director, to see President Zia in Islamabad.
Gallucci, who accompanied him, remembers: “Our evidence was incontrovertible. ‘This is what your experts have been up to’, we said, as politely as we could, giving Zia a get-out.
“However, the president rejected our briefing, saying our information had come from the Indians.”
Gallucci was not privy to a secret agenda. Walters confided to a senior State Department colleague on his return that, far from demanding a rollback in nuclear trading, he had been asked to warn the Pakistanis to do it more discreetly.
“He came in looking miserable,” the colleague recalled. “He said, ‘I was told [by the White House] to tell Zia to get that nuclear problem off our radar’.
“I was shocked. It was the antithesis of what we were supposed to be doing. Instead of giving it to them with both barrels, Walters had told the Pakistanis they had better hide their bomb programme, lest it humiliate Reagan.”
But Zia did not heed the warning and, as the months passed, the intelligence mounted. It was augmented by a US data-collect-ing operation made possible by a high-tech surveillance device secreted in the arid area surrounding the heavily guarded Kahuta hills outside Islamabad, where the nuclear installation had been built.
The device, a resin “boulder”, was capable of transmitting intelligence through an array of recording and air-sampling technology hidden inside.
A freak accident exposed the operation. Somebody fell on the “rock”, exposing the whirring and blinking components.
While knowing what was going on, Washington pursued a deception that bloomed into a complex conspiracy. Evidence was destroyed, criminal files were diverted, and Congress was repeatedly lied to.
The obfuscation concealed from the world Pakistan’s “cold-testing” of a nuclear bomb in laboratory conditions in 1983 and the intelligence that it had “hot-tested” – exploded – one in 1984 with the help of China.
By the time Reagan’s presidency came to an end in 1989, Pakistan possessed a deployable and tested nuclear device. Much of the programme had been funded using hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid diverted by the Pakistan military.
The bomb could be mated to a missile or dropped from Ameri-can-supplied F-16 fighter jets, also given by Reagan in the mid1980s, and the nuclear weapons programme had become a shop window for the world’s most unstable powers.
The US deceit lapsed in the 1990s when President George Bush Sr cut Pakistan adrift after the fall of the Soviet Union; but this increased Islamabad’s need to develop and sell nuclear technology in place of aid.
Under Bill Clinton an ever more detailed picture was pieced together of Pakistan’s dangerous liaisons: Iran in 1987, Iraq in 1990, North Korea in 1993, and by 1997 Libya, too. In 1998 both India and Pakistan held publicly announced nuclear tests.
By the time George W Bush became president in 2001, there was a mountain of precise intelligence portraying Pakistan as the epicentre of global instability: a host of and patron for Islamist terrorism, ruled by a military clique that was raising capital and political influence by selling WMD.
Yet even when American spy satellites photographed missile components being loaded into a Pakistani C-130 outside Pyong-yang, the North Korean capital – and intelligence analysts concluded that the cargo was a direct exchange for Pakistani nuclear technology – Washington did not react.
It was in this dangerous condition that Pakistan was clutched back into the American bosom after the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. And the deception continued.
© Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark 2007
Extracted from Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, to be published by Atlantic Books on September 13 at £25. Copies can be ordered for £22.50 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585
There are currently 1 users browsing this thread. (0 members and 1 guests)