Delivered June 27, 2007
The potential for the intersection of terrorism and nuclear
weapons is arguably the greatest threat to American national, even
global, security. As the U.S. seeks to deter the possibility of
terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons, it must consider
carefully its policies toward Pakistan. The results of
investigations into Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer
Khan's nuclear black market and proliferation network
demonstrate in stark terms the devastating consequences of
nuclear proliferation by individuals with access to
state-controlled nuclear programs.
Some observers have incorrectly characterized the threat of
nuclear terrorism in Pakistan as stemming from the danger of
radical Islamists overrunning the country and gaining control of
the country's nuclear assets. However, given that the religious
parties lack wide popular support and that President Pervez
Musharraf and his senior army commanders largely oppose the
Islamist agenda, the probability of this scenario occurring is
relatively low. When it comes to preventing terrorists from
acquiring nuclear bombs, the more worrisome trend in Pakistan is
the links between some retired military and intelligence officials
and nuclear scientists to Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists.
U.S. policy should therefore center on helping to prevent the
penetration of the nuclear establishment over time by individuals
sympathetic to al-Qaeda goals. Despite Pakistan's arguments that
its nuclear weapons are safely guarded, the U.S. must construct and
implement policies that proactively thwart the unwelcome
possibility of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the wrong
hands. Given the tangled history of U.S.-Pakistan relations,
especially with regard to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, the
development of workable solutions to address the nuclear
terrorism threat will be challenging and complicated. The best
chance for success will lie within a framework premised on a robust
U.S.- Pakistan partnership based on trust and mutual
U.S.-Pakistan Ties and Islamabad's Quest for Nuclear
Pakistan's regional security concerns have led it to acquire
nuclear weapons in the face of persistent and often severe
international penalties. After the 1964 Chinese nuclear test, then
Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto concluded that India would
also go nuclear and that Pakistan would have to follow in its
footsteps. Pakistan's humiliating defeat in the 1971 war with
India, which resulted in the dismemberment of the country,
further convinced Bhutto (by then president of the country) of
Pakistan's need for a nuclear deterrent against India's
conventional superiority. It was at this point that Bhutto decided
Pakistan would secretly pursue a nuclear weapon. India's 1974
nuclear test accelerated the Pakistani efforts to acquire
nuclear weapons, and by late 1975 Bhutto had placed
metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan in charge of a clandestine effort to
produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Another India-Pakistan military crisis in 1987, sparked by a
large-scale Indian military exercise called Operation Brass Tacks,
only strengthened Pakistani resolve on its decision to develop a
credible nuclear weapons program. The Pakistanis believed
Operation Brass Tacks was cover for a planned Indian invasion and
so began amassing their own troops near the border. At the peak of
the crisis, A.Q. Khan announced to an Indian journalist that
Pakistan had a nuclear weapons capability.
In 1985, two years prior to Operation Brass Tacks, the U.S.
Congress passed legislation (referred to as the Pressler Amendment)
requiring the U.S. President to certify that Pakistan did not
possess a nuclear weapon as a pre-condition for further U.S.
assistance. When President George H.W. Bush decided he could no
longer certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon on
October 1, 1990, the U.S. suspended its $564 million aid program to
Pakistan for fiscal year 1991. The loss of $300 million
annually of arms and other military supplies was a heavy blow to
Pakistan's defense establishment, while the cut-off of
economic assistance added to problems that were already severely
weakening the Pakistani economy.
Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests in May 1998 in
response to a round of testing by India after it broke a 24-year
self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing. The Clinton
Administration imposed fresh sanctions on Pakistan (and India)
following the 1998 tests but gradually lifted the restrictions.
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush Administration
lifted all remaining nuclear sanctions against both Pakistan and
India. After the 1998 nuclear tests, A.Q. Khan boasted that he made
Pakistan's program more advanced and reliable than the Indian
program, citing Pakistan's mastery of the uranium enrichment
Pakistan's Strategic Neighborhood
Pakistan-India Relations. Pakistan's nuclear
program is driven primarily by Islamabad's perception that it needs
to counter the Indian threat, and to a lesser extent by its desire
to establish itself as a major Islamic power. There is genuine
concern in Pakistan that India will take advantage of the U.S.
civil nuclear deal to expand its weapons program. Reports over the
last year about Pakistan's construction of a major heavy-water
nuclear reactor at the Khushab facility have raised concern that
Islamabad will significantly boost its plutonium production
capabilities, thereby fueling a regional arms race that could
The six-month-long India-Pakistan military crisis sparked
by a terrorist attack on India's parliament in December 2001 was
defused after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage
secured a commitment from President Musharraf to end the
infiltration of Kashmiri militants into Indian-held Kashmir.
Shortly before the stand-off ended, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi
evacuated the families of diplomats on the grounds that a
military conflict between the two adversaries could escalate into a
nuclear exchange. Although India says nuclear war was never a
possibility, the Pakistani security establishment appears to
believe that the crisis proved the effectiveness of its nuclear
deterrent against India.
Pakistan and India formally launched a composite dialogue
process in January 2004 that includes talks on nuclear confidence
building. In June 2004, New Delhi and Islamabad agreed to continue
a bilateral moratorium on further nuclear tests; to provide each
other advance notice of nuclear-capable missile tests; and to
establish a hotline between each other's foreign ministries. These
talks marked the first follow-up discussions to the 1999 Lahore
Memorandum of Understanding, designed to reduce the risks of a
nuclear exchange due to accident or misunderstanding. Earlier
this year, India and Pakistan furthered these talks by inking an
agreement to notify each other immediately via their hotline links
in the event of any accident relating to nuclear weapons.
Pakistan-China Relations. Pakistan and China
have had long-standing strategic ties. China is Pakistan's
largest defense supplier and the Chinese view Pakistan as a useful
counterweight to Indian power in the region. In the run-up to
Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Pakistan last November,
media reports speculated that Beijing would sign a major nuclear
energy cooperation agreement with Pakistan. In the end, however,
the Chinese leader provided a general pledge of support to
Pakistan's nuclear energy program but refrained from announcing
plans to supply new nuclear reactors. China has helped Pakistan
build two nuclear reactors at the Chasma site in the Punjab
Province and has provided Pakistan with nuclear technology as far
back as the 1970s. China also is helping Pakistan develop a deep
sea port at Gwadar in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, near
the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
One source of tension between Beijing and Islamabad that
has surfaced in the past has been over the issue of rising Islamic
extremism in Pakistan and the ability of Chinese Uighur separatists
to receive sanctuary and training among other radical Islamist
groups on Pakistani territory. To mollify China's concerns,
Pakistan in recent years has begun to clamp down on Uighur
settlements and on religious schools used as training grounds for
militant Islamists. Their tensions over Islamic extremism
surfaced when Islamic vigilantes recently kidnapped several Chinese
citizens they accused of running a brothel in Islamabad. The
extremists released the kidnap victims shortly after they were
captured, saying they did so in the interest of maintaining
Pakistan's good relations with China.
Pakistan-Iran Relations. Pakistan's relations
with Iran have been far from smooth over the last three decades.
Relations soured following the 1979 Iranian Revolution due to
Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq's previous support of the
Shah's regime and his encouragement of Sunni militant
organizations that pushed a strict Sunni interpretation of
Islam and targeted the minority Shiia population in Pakistan. Iran,
in turn, began to export to Pakistan Shiia militants to counter the
Sunni extremists. Sectarian violence has ebbed and flowed over the
last fifteen years in Pakistan and continues to have a chilling
impact on Iranian-Pakistani relations.
Pakistan's support of the Sunni Taliban in the mid-1990s
significantly raised tensions between Tehran and Islamabad. These
tensions climaxed in August 1998 when the Taliban killed several
Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Iran responded by amassing its military along the border with
Afghanistan. If fighting had broken out between Iranian forces and
the Taliban, Pakistan would have likely been drawn into the
conflict in support of the Taliban. It is difficult to imagine
Pakistan would have officially sanctioned nuclear cooperation with
such an unsteady neighbor, although some analysts believe the
bulk of the nuclear cooperation occurred in the early 1990s before
the Taliban had emerged and shortly after the U.S. had cut off
assistance to Pakistan.
Pakistan's halt to official support for the Taliban following
9/11 has helped to improve Pakistani- Iranian ties, and both
countries are actively engaged in talks on developing an
Iran-Pakistan-India oil and gas pipeline.
Terrorism and Nuclear Weapons
Former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet reports in
his memoirs that A.Q. Khan rebuffed several approaches by Osama bin
Laden for access to nuclear know-how, although it was not clear
Perhaps Khan understood that cooperating with the renowned
terrorist leader was a bridge too far, as it risked contributing to
a scenario of nuclear Armageddon that could cause mass destruction
and loss of life in his own country.
Although A.Q. Khan avoided engaging al-Qaeda on nuclear issues,
earlier revelations about a group of former Pakistani military
officials and nuclear scientists who met with Osama bin Laden
around the time of 9/11 remind us of the continuing threat of the
intersection of terrorism and nuclear weapons in Pakistan. On
October 23, 2001, acting on an American request, Pakistani
authorities detained Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majeed, two
retired Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) officials.
Since their retirement from the PAEC in 1999 they had been involved
in relief work in Afghanistan through a non-governmental
organization they established called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (UTN).
In November 2001, the coalition forces found documents in
Afghanistan relating to UTN's interest in biological weapons. This
prompted Pakistani security forces to arrest seven members of
UTN's board, most of whom were retired Pakistani Army officials and
George Tenet speculates in his memoirs that UTN's contacts with
the Taliban and al-Qaeda may have been supported by some elements
within the Pakistani military and intelligence
establishment. Tenet says Pakistani interrogations of the
seven board members were initially insufficient. He further
notes that despite CIA warnings to Pakistani officials about UTN's
activities before 9/11, it was only when President George W. Bush
dispatched him to Pakistan in November 2001, following revelations
of a meeting between bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and UTN leaders,
that Musharraf took serious action.
Outcome of Khan Investigations
Similar foot-dragging by the Pakistani authorities was evident
in the case of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network. U.S.
officials had repeatedly raised their concern about Khan's
activities with President Musharraf, but it was not until
Washington provided indisputable proof of its knowledge of
Khan's activities and threatened to go public with the
information in late 2003 that Musharraf took direct action to
halt Khan's activities.
Even after details emerged about the tremendous damage done by
the A.Q. Khan proliferation network, there was no formal
prosecution of the Pakistani associates of Khan, and Khan
himself is merely under house arrest. President Musharraf claims he
cannot formally prosecute Khan or allow him to be questioned by
U.S. or international authorities because of the hero status
Khan enjoys for contributing to the development of Pakistan's
nuclear weapons program.
U.S. Policy Recommendations
There are steps the U.S. can pursue to help ensure nuclear
weapons do not fall into the wrong hands in Pakistan and to prevent
a dangerous nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India.
Washington has already begun to pursue such initiatives but
will need to increase its attention and resources to expanding and
strengthening such measures.
Leveraging, Not Conditioning, U.S.
Assistance: Based on the negative consequences
brought by the U.S. cut-off of assistance to Pakistan in 1990, it
is unlikely that a narrow policy of cutting or even conditioning
assistance to Pakistan through U.S. legislation now would help
meet the above goals. The 1990 aid suspension cost the U.S.
valuable leverage with Islamabad, damaged military-to-military
relationships, and stoked strong anti-U.S. sentiment that
still exists in the country. Efforts to publicly condition
assistance to Pakistan could actually weaken Musharraf's hand in
convincing his military commanders that the U.S. is a reliable
partner. President Musharraf already contends with public
opposition to his support for U.S. counterterrorism goals in the
region, and conditioning aid through legislation would awaken
memories of 1990 and weaken Pakistani public support for pursuing
relations with the U.S.
Instead of conditioning aid on specific actions by Islamabad,
Washington should target its assistance programs more effectively
to accomplish specific goals. On the nuclear issue, the U.S. should
seek to implement programs that help improve safety and security at
nuclear facilities. Press reports indicate that the U.S. may
already be cooperating with the Pakistanis on this front, but given
Pakistani sensitivities on the issue of maintaining sovereign
control of its nuclear assets, such cooperation will remain largely
out of the public eye.
Perhaps over time, as the U.S-Pakistan partnership solidifies,
it will be possible to develop a Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat
Reduction (CTR) program with Pakistan, similar to what the U.S. has
established with Russia. Potential areas for cooperation with
Pakistan include nuclear reactor safety, safeguarding nuclear
material, rapid response to nuclear-related emergencies, and
expanded export control cooperation. The Pakistan Parliament
adopted export control legislation in September 2004 for nuclear
and biological weapons and their delivery systems.
Tailoring a CTR program of assistance for Pakistan would be
challenging since Pakistan is not a signatory to the
Nonproliferation Treaty. The U.S. is prohibited both by legal and
treaty obligations from assisting the nuclear programs of states
outside the nonproliferation regime. Another obstacle is the
basic premise of the Nunn-Lugar legislation that requires
recipients of CTR assistance to make "substantial investment of its
resources for dismantling or destroying such weapons." It
would be impossible to develop a CTR program with Pakistan
along these lines without addressing the fact that Indo-Pakistani
rivalry is what drives Pakistan's nuclear program.
Encourage India-Pakistan Nuclear Confidence
Building: India and Pakistanhave made significant
strides in their dialogue over the last three years, including the
maintenance of a ceasefire along the Line of Control that divides
Kashmir since November 2003, the opening of rail and bus links
across their borders, and increased people-to-people exchanges.
Efforts to build confidence on nuclear-related issues have been
slow, however. Addressing the Indo-Pakistani nuclear issue also
relies to some extent on perceived progress on resolving the
Kashmir dispute, as well as the status of China's nuclear
Talks about the vexing Kashmir issue were expected to make
progress this year following President Musharraf's
announcement last December of forward-leaning proposals to resolve
the dispute. However, the judicial crisis in Pakistan sparked by
the government's March 9 dismissal of the country's Chief Justice
and ensuing street demonstrations have sidetracked the Musharraf
government and raised concern in New Delhi about negotiating with
Islamabad during the political uncertainty.
Preventing Pakistan's nuclear weapons and technology from
falling into the hands of terrorists should be a top priority for
the U.S. Revelations about the devastating impact of the A.Q. Khan
proliferation network and nuclear black market will prevent
Washington from considering a civil-nuclear cooperation
agreement with Pakistan similar to that being pursued with India.
U.S. policy toward Pakistan's nuclear program should instead focus
specifically on nuclear safety and security cooperation and
encouraging India-Pakistan dialogue that will improve Pakistan's
regional security perceptions.
Washington needs to maintain a robust partnership with
Islamabad based on mutual trust and understanding. U.S.
policymakers should refrain from compartmentalizing our myriad
interests in Pakistan, and instead integrate the various
components of U.S. policy toward Pakistan. In other words,
pursuing nuclear safety and security and nonproliferation in
Pakistan should not be viewed as "competing" with other U.S. goals
such as denying Taliban and al-Qaeda safe haven on Pakistani
territory, shutting down madrassahs that feed terrorist
groups, encouraging peace talks with India, or pressing for steps
toward democracy. These goals are interrelated and mutually
reinforcing, and will eventually encourage Pakistan toward a stable
and moderate path.
Lisa A. Curtis is
Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center
at The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered June
27, 2007, before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs,
Subcommittees on the Middle East and South Asia, and
Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and
Kux, The United States and Pakistan: 1947-2000
Oxford University Press), p. 224.
Zahid Hussain, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant
Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 161.
George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm (New York:
HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), p. 261.
Hussain, Frontline Pakistan, pp. 154-155.
Tenet, At the Center of the Storm, pp. 262-268.
Richard Cronin, K. Alan Kronstadt, and Sharon Squassoni,
"Pakistan's Nuclear Proliferation Activities and the
Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission: U.S. Policy Constraints and
Options," Congressional Research Service, RL32745, March 16, 2005,
(September 12, 2007).