BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 5(1) July-August 2002

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Has Pakistan Lost Its Nuclear Weapons?

 Narayanan Komerath

Recent statements from the Pakistani dictator and his media indicate a major change in the strategic balance of the Indian subcontinent - a change which goes well beyond what can be explained by the known events of the past two months. This paper examines the implications, and advances a speculative hypothesis – that Pakistan no longer possesses what General Musharraf described as recently as September 2001 as the “strategic assets” of Pakistan. This paper is organized as follows. First, the perception of threats and constraints in the US regarding the Pakistani nuclear program is summarized as of October 2001. The relevance of subsequent events to the threat perception is analyzed. The rise and ebb of the fear of nuclear war threats in the Indian subcontinent is then considered – ending with the unusual statements which motivated the present hypothesis. The implications of these events are then discussed, with arguments for and against the hypothesis, and the conclusions are presented.

The Pakistani Nuclear Threat

 US Perceptions of Threat and Constraints – October 2001  

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have understandably caused nightmares to western observers. These nightmares were amplified in the aftermath of the massive terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The threat perceptions from US mainstream publications [1-8] as of October 2001 may be summarized as:

  • Nuclear war in South Asia.

  • Fissile material from Pakistani nuclear facilities falling into terrorist hands

  • Accidents due to inadequate safeguards

  • Coup-d’etat deposing Dictator General Musharraf and installing an even more extreme regime.

The second threat listed above was very real, in view of the close connection between the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence organization (the ISI) and various Pakistani-sponsored terrorist groups [7]. In an October 2001 paper [1] David Albright set out four constraints faced by the US in “helping” Pakistan “secure” its nuclear weapons: Such assistance should not [1]...

  • violate U.S. commitments or objectives under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT),

  • harm U.S. relations with India,

  • contribute to advances in Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, or

  •  increase the threat of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.

The field of nuclear weapons development and control is inevitably clouded with uncertainty and speculation. All public domain writings on this subject must be assumed colored with the bias and purpose of the authors. Technical discourse in the United States on such subjects is remarkable for its innocent adherence to prevailing political models. For instance, [1] and its list of references ignore the most important influence in the development of the Pakistani nuclear program – the People’s Republic of China [8]. This renders the discussion of the secrecy of locations and independence of the Pakistani nuclear weapons establishment quite meaningless. Given the level of public discourse in this area, the current author presents his hypothesis with little fear of under-shooting the standards of this field.

At least by Fall 2001, concerns were thus developing about Pakistani weapons, fissile material or technology being used against American interests - concerns deep enough to warrant consideration of aerial bombardment to destroy nuclear facilities [1]. In this context, Ref. [1] does mention the possibility of the US seeking Chinese cooperation to accept Pakistani weapons for safekeeping. We now examine subsequent events, considering whether the stated thresholds for US pre-emptive action have indeed been exceeded since October 2001.

Post-Kargil Posture: Spatial Strategic Depth

Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was Pakistan's "spatial strategic depth" – safe from Indian aerial or naval attack, and beyond range of Prithvi missiles. Pakistan Army personnel formed 70% of the Taliban’s military forces [9]. Thus in 1998, as planning for the Kargil invasion went into top gear, Pakistan may have shifted some of their "assets" to their bases in Afghanistan. Strategic doctrine depended on this spatial depth for a survivable deterrent – enabling Pakistan to reject a no-first-use policy, unlike India. As recently as June 26, 2002, reference [10] defends the first use option as crucial to Pakistan’s ability to support cross-border terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir without fear of Indian retaliation.

MAD and First-Use Considerations – A Synopsis  

As Taliban control of Afghanistan was consolidated by 1996, Pakistan expected quid pro quo: to turn the full might of the Mujaheddin, victors over the Soviet Red Army, on Kashmir. Surprisingly, this massive “jehad” failed to materialize. Kashmiris looked with fear on the Afghan/ Pathan outsiders who were taking over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), and resented the takeover of the lucrative “Kashmiri Freedom” racket by Pakistani Punjabi and Pathan mercenaries – these terrorists brutalized and killed far more Muslim Kashmiri Indian civilians than anyone else [11]. Outfits such as the “JKLF” renounced violence and assimilated into Indian society; militant leaders such as Abdul Ghani Lone (assassinated by terrorists in May 2002) renounced violence altogether and entered the Indian political system. By 1997, democracy took hold in J&K, and the economy improved. Sensing the imminent failure of their policy, Pakistan’s military commanders embarked on a scheme to occupy the heights above Kargil town inside Indian territory. Such a move enabled them to cut National Highway 1, the lifeline of the Indian army units in the Siachen region. The Pakistani Generals hoped that this would force the Indian units to surrender, thereby giving them victory need to motivate the people of J&K to support an invasion of J&K using divisions of Islamist irregulars based on the Deosai Plateau in POK.

The Pakistanis felt their new-found nuclear status prevented India from launching armored ripostes south of Kashmir, or air strikes. Thus the conquest of J&K appeared feasible as “fait accompli” provided the occupation of the Kargil heights starved the Siachen forces into surrender. This thinking was set back in May 1999 when India ordered air and artillery strikes, and Indian infantry succeeded against murderous odds in recapturing the Kargil heights. World opinion rejected the attempt to pass off the Pakistan Army occupiers of the heights as “indigenous Kashmiri freedom fighters”. After the Kargil debacle (“The entire Northern Light Infantry used for the Kargil Intrusion was wiped out” [12] according to then- Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif), Pakistan went back to sending terrorists across the Line of Control under artillery cover. Terrorist camps operated in full view across the Line of Control (LOC), secured from Indian “hot pursuit” operations by the threat of nuclear war.

To forestall attacks on terrorist camps, Pakistan had to simply threaten the first use of nuclear weapons. That is, the threshold of defeat in conventional war or even economic warfare (such as a naval blockade or a cutoff of Indus river water), which would trigger a Pakistani nuclear strike on Indian cities, was to be decided by Pakistan’s rulers alone. Why Indian cities, not military bases? Because Pakistani missile accuracy was poor, and only cities formed large-enough targets.

Unhindered by democratic decision processes, Pakistan’s dictator could decide to sacrifice millions of his subjects if his throne seemed shaky. Thirty years ago, members of the present Pakistani junta were the junior officer corps who conducted the genocide of 3 million East Pakistanis [13] Unlike the Nazis, Khmer Rouge, and the Rwandan Hutus, they have never had to answer for this genocide. They supervised the crushing of popular movements in Baluchistan in 1974 and Gilgit-Baltistan in the 1980s [14], watched the decimation of their Northern Light Infantry in 1999 [12], thousands of their terrorist mercenaries in J&K, and the huge Pakistani-Taliban forces and young jehad fans who were lost in Afghanistan. There is no reason to believe that they would hesitate to kill a few hundred thousand more Indians or Americans. The only credible deterrence of the Pakistani nuclear threat was the assured retaliation from India. Conversely, the only protection that Pakistan enjoyed for its pursuit of terrorism was the threat of first use of its “strategic assets”.

Chronology of Events Relevant to Denuclearization

 September 11 and its Aftermath: The Closing of Islamabad Airport

The events of September 11, 2001 changed the prospects of the Pakistani military establishment and their dreams of running a Pan-Islam empire. On September 12 (9/13 in Pakistan), less than 24 hours after the WTC/ Pentagon attacks, Islamabad and other airports were shut down for several hours to all civilian traffic [15, 16]. Heavy military air traffic was observed. At the time, speculation was rife that:

  1. Senior Pakistani officers and valuable equipment on loan to the Taliban were being airlifted back from Afghanistan,

  2. Nuclear weapons were being moved through the airport for safekeeping.

In the first scenario above, one wonders about the need for secrecy. Senior officers could just as well have returned on civil airliners dressed in the “burkhas” which the Pakistan Army are reputed to wear when they are visible to the Indian gunners across the LOC. This airlift appears to have been arranged at impossibly short notice. The Taliban was under a total UN embargo in September 2001, and this may have driven the urgency of exit. But Afghanistan never facilitated high-speed land travel between cities – nor had it a good air transport system. Unless all of the airlifted people and equipment came from one location, fairly close to major airfields, such an airlift is rather implausible. If this was an airlift of senior personnel, when was the airlift planned, and how long did it take to gather the personnel and their belongings from all over Afghanistan? What this implies about the Musharraf junta’s foreknowledge of the Sep. 11 events is a subject for a different speculation.

The other explanation was that the "strategic assets" were being returned home from the "strategic depths". These would presumably have been located for quick airlift access. Where did the "assets" go next? If India watched the airport closing, so presumably did US agents around Islamabad - and the US, Russian and Indian satellites. Thus the location of at least some of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons was well known to US authorities in Pakistan as of Sep.12. When General Musharraf lectured on Pakistan TV about the need to accept the "lesser of the two evils" (i.e., the American side, as compared to the American threat to “prepare to live in the Stone Age” [16]) in order to save the strategic assets, was he referring to assets which were already gone, but which he hoped to recover through good behavior? More on this later, but in view of his subsequent bluster and bravado, it is unlikely that all of his “crown jewels” were removed from his control at that time – or the level of control imposed was not as total as it became in May-June 2002.

Kunduz Airlift

The Kunduz Airlift [17-20] continues to be one of the great mysteries of the Afghan War of 2001. At least one aircraft every night is known to have landed and taken off at the Kunduz airstrip on each of the last nights of the Northern Alliance siege of Kunduz. The defenders were reputed to be the worst of the Al Qaeda – they even killed Afghan Taliban comrades who wanted to surrender. Given American control of airspace, the airlift raised questions – stonewalled by the US administration. The issue here is: “What was vital enough to American interests to tolerate airlifts of the worst criminals of Al Qaeda, and then to risk censure by denying it? What was so secret that there have been no media leaks on what was airlifted?” One speculation is that senior officers and their families were evacuated as quid pro quo for “co-operation” in handing over the ` Strategic Assets'. Another is that it was Chinese men being evacuated at the request of the PRC. The report of the last plane arriving on the 12th night of the airlift – and turning back because the airport had already fallen – suggests that the planes came from far enough away that the battle situation changed since takeoff. In either case, one wonders what the US exacted as a price for allowing this airlift. A recent article [20] claims that the Kunduz airlifts brought out all but 800 of the 5000-odd Pakistani personnel in Kunduz using 35- 40 missions over 5 nights – and that the airlift was approved by USA General Tommy Franks after Pakistani General Aziz threatened to end cooperation and wage war against the US in Pakistan. There is no reason to believe this theory of American Generals being cowed by Pakistani threats of attack – unless there was a far worse threat attached. Was it that of Al Qaeda rendering Kunduz radioactive in a final act of defiance? It is understandable that if Aziz informed the US of nuclear weapons trapped in Kunduz, the US would have covered their evacuation to Pakistan – and US control. The escape of some Al Qaeda would have been incidental to resolving that hostage situation – though the US is paying a steep price now, with Al Qaeda regrouping in Pakistan. Only Pakistan could guarantee that all the weapons were accounted for.  

The Kabul House - Interrogation and Escape of Pakistani Nuclear Scientists

During the liberation of Kabul in early November 2001, Allied forces reported finding an Al Qaeda house in Kabul. Inside was an improvised classroom/ planning room. A blackboard showed sketches apparently of terrorist weapons – an F-16, an atmospheric explosion or a balloon carrying what might be anthrax spores, and plans for other exotic devices. The house was owned by a top official in the Pakistani nuclear establishment. On October 24 (“in the early hours” [15]), Pakistani nuclear experts Sultan Bashir Mahmood (Chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission), Dr. A. Majeed — and 6 other colleagues from Islamabad and Lahore were detained [15] and “interviewed” by American intelligence. All belonged to Ummah Tameer Nao (“Muslim Nation’s Reconstruction” [15]) — which had been working in Afghanistan. One of them suffered a heart attack following repeated interrogation. In a reshuffle of the Pakistani nuclear establishment, its “founder”, Dr. Abdul Quadeer Khan (irreverently called “Abdul Xerox Khan” by Indians), went into sudden retirement. A further setback came when Abu Zubeidah, one of bin Laden’s aides, was removed from Faisalabad, Pakistan to the Guantanamo Bay US interrogation center. US authorities cited him as the source (this may well be disinformation) leading to the May 1 arrest of Jose Padilla on arrival from Pakistan, accused of plotting to set off radioactive “dirty bombs” in US population centers. The April 2002 suicide-bombing of a Tunisian synagogue (killing 14 Germans) using an explosive-packed tanker truck, led investigators to Canada and to a link to a plot to bomb Los Angeles and other airports. All trails led back to Al Qaeda terror camps in “Afghanistan” [21] which by now is understood to be a pseudonym for “Pakistan”. Curiously, two more senior nuclear experts are reported to have “retired” and moved to Myanmar with Musharraf’s blessings [22]. Myanmar’s regime has no extradition treaty with the US, but has excellent relations with the PRC. One may speculate about the role of these Pakistanis in any Myanmarese ambitions to acquire Chinese-supplied “strategic assets”.

The December 13 Attack; Trial Balloon in January 2002

The attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001 led to the first nuclear war scare since 1999. India’s rapid buildup of strike forces, and the destruction of dozens of Pakistani border posts which covered terrorist infiltration, led to Pakistani threats of first use of nuclear weapons. For the first time, this threat failed to impress the Indian public. In December 2001, there was far more concern in India for the safety and security of the United States and its people, than there was about nuclear attack from Pakistan. In other words, the Pakistani First Use Doctrine did not deter India’s determination to hit back at the terrorists, and to take out their camps across the Line of Control.

The crisis and the failure of the Pakistani nuclear blackmail of December 2001 may have triggered new thinking on the part of the US, PRC or both. It may also have triggered action to secure the nuclear weapons. In January 2002, General Musharraf was quoted as saying, for the first time, that “denuclearization of South Asia is an essential step for peace” [23]. At the time, this statement was so out of tune with the strategic doctrines, and the MAD equation, that it was hardly noticed even in the Pakistani press. It was certainly ignored by India amongst several nuclear threats veiled as “reviews of strategic doctrine” or “plans to upgrade forces” [24-31]. Pre-publication summaries of White House aide Bruce Reidel’s Policy Paper describing the Pakistani nuclear deployment in 1999, and US President Clinton’s tough stance against Pakistani aggression [32] also reinforced Indian views of the hawkish Pakistani nuclear stance. In retrospect, the Musharraf statement gives the first clue to the timing of the change.  

Kaluchak Attack and Nuclear Blackmail

In April 2002, another sensational terror attack targeted families of Indian soldiers. Pictures of 2-year-olds machine-gunned at point-blank range fueled unprecedented outrage. India moved determinedly towards a war to stop infiltration and remove the terrorist camps across the Line of Control.

Through May 2002, Pakistan still claimed to be going full speed towards developing a full Strategic Triad – land, air and submarine-launched nuclear weapons. Refs. [29-31] discuss their ambitions for nuclear-armed submarines threatening the West and East coasts of India – a capability lost with East Pakistan and the sinking of the “Ghazi” off Vishakapatnam in 1971. Ballistic missile development was supposedly in full swing. Three diesel-powered, nuclear-missile-capable quiet submarines were being built by Agosta of France at Karachi. Pakistani Admirals spoke fondly of plans to equip surface warships with nuclear missiles - and to finally be able to deter the Indian capability to deny Pakistan access to the sea.

As the Indian buildup proceeded, the Pakistani threats became increasingly strident. Musharraf’ junta “Ministers” in charge of the Railways and Foreign Policy, and their new UN Ambassador, made threats to launch nuclear strikes on India even in response to economic pressure [28; 33-34]. In addition to the Reidel Policy Paper [32], ref. [33] describes a warning from US authorities to India about Pakistani nuclear warheads having been deployed on missiles again, and the inability to predict the threshold at which Pakistan would launch nuclear weapons. The coolness of the Indian response indicated readiness of the Indian nuclear deterrent - or the first hint of knowledge that the Pakistani threats were hollow.

 Missile Tests and Bluster - The Chinese Role 

As discussed in [8,36], there is no doubt that the Pakistani missile and nuclear weapon programs received major assistance from the PRC. Some missiles might have arrived from North Korea – but were still Chinese designs, while others were direct Chinese imports. The signatures of Pakistan’s May 1998 nuclear explosions bore strong resemblance to Chinese tactical nuclear weapon tests. Nair [36] writes that after Sep. 11, 2001 the PRC, anticipating upheavals, pressed Pakistan to return “traceable” weapons to China for safekeeping. Pakistan refused – and thousands of PLA personnel arrived in Pakistan to help secure weapons. The influx of American military power and influence must have caused serious concern in Beijing. Chinese self-interest in supporting Pakistan’s agenda must have undergone review.

PRC concern about Islamic terrorism is glimpsed in a report attributed to Indian intelligence. This occurred after the late-2000 blasts (with official reports of over a hundred deaths) in the capital of majority-Muslim Xinjiang province, which is plagued with an anti-Beijing Uighur guerrilla campaign. The report spoke of a few dozen Uighur trainees being taken, at Chinese behest, out of a terrorist training camp run by the Pakistan Army in POK – and executed. Reports from Afghanistan have often mentioned “Chinese” among the Al Qaeda forces. The PRC supplied new F-7 fighter planes to Pakistan recently – and newspapers reported that a Chinese cash donation helped the PAF obtain spare parts in the summer of 2001. However, official Chinese reaction to the India-Pakistan standoff has been noticeably lacking in the fierce rhetoric characteristic of PRC statements on issues of importance (e.g. Taiwan or the EP-3 incident). The impression conveyed is that the Chinese would very much like not to be associated with the global terrorist movement, or with the potential for nuclear war. There were also reports of Sino-Russo-American discussions about the India-Pakistan situation, suggesting that some working arrangement was developed.

Another major hint at the growing desperation of the Pakistani leadership is in the missile tests of May-June 2002. In January, India conducted a test of the Agni-II – a version modified for shorter range, heavier payload and quicker launching. Pakistan promised a “counter-test”, but none was forthcoming. This was initially attributed to “new thinking on the part of the Chief Executive” [23], and later to technical problems. In May-June 2002, in an intensifying crisis, Pakistan announced tests of several missiles [37-39]. With remarkable promptness, videos purportedly of these tests were played on international media. Clearly the tests were intended less for weapon validation than for conveying something to the international community – public release of launch videotapes showing new weapons at close range is quite unusual anywhere. What was even more remarkable was the content of these videos. The tests appeared to be failures. Reports indicated that the missiles had gone off course and landed on populated Pakistani territory. A Pakistani Lt. General was reported visiting China on an urgent mission. A mysterious convoy whose heavy guard guaranteed curiosity came down the Karakoram Highway from the PRC to Pakistan, traveling by night and hiding by day [36]. Movements of the several thousand PLA personnel inside Pakistan, especially in the Hunza region were reported [36]. The better-informed portions of the western media noted that the missile test videos left no room for doubt that these were Chinese and North Korean missiles. These leave the big question: Why were the tests conducted? Were they intended to pressure India (the Indian reaction [39] was official laughter), or China, showing the world that their missiles were duds – and demanding replenishment and upgrades?

The New Threat Perception

Americans at Risk

Going back to the threat thresholds envisaged in October 2001, it is clear that more than one of these thresholds was exceeded by June 2002. The desperation and instability of the Pakistani regime was patent. The MAD equation had changed considerably. Indian retaliation to Pakistani First Use appeared more credible than ever, and anger inside India was at levels where a national consensus to risk all-out nuclear war was apparent. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s dictator faced a dilemma: Accept Indian demands and stop his terrorists – and risk losing his throne – or keep rejecting Indian demands and trigger a conventional war which would ensure loss of his throne and his terrorists. With both courses of action likely to remove Musharraf from his throne, the logical threshold for a Pakistani dictator to push the nuclear button had been exceeded. The Kunduz/Kabul events showed that Pakistani weapons would fall into terrorist hands at any time even without any coup in Pakistan.

What had America invested inside Pakistan at this time? Official reports speak of several airbases along the Baluchistan coast, taken over by American forces. Dozens of terrorist suspects were being arrested all over Pakistan with American direction [40] – revealing a massive grassroots-level penetration by US agents. Reports from Karachi spoke of Pakistanis not being allowed to approach hotels near the larger airports – all occupied by Americans. FBI officers were reported to be standing near Pakistan immigration/customs officials at all international airports and monitoring every passenger. Special Forces were operating along the western border of Pakistan – and preparing for operations in the Northwest Frontier Province and Waziristan. Airborne divisions were reportedly prepared for operations against Al Qaeda terrorists in POK. Recent reports speak of any Pakistani using a satellite phone and speaking other than local dialects, finding himself under arrest with the phone still in his hands – under American direction. The level of US human and technological presence in Pakistan needed to accomplish this feat is best left to the imagination. Reports of recent overseas operations such as the Somalia mission indicate that the ratio of combatants to logistics people in American “combat unit deployments” is on the order of 1 to 10. These considerations appear to vindicate the “unnamed Pakistani official” who claimed that some 64,000 American personnel were inside Pakistan, besides the 60,000-plus Americans in tourist, official and business dealings in India.

Musharraf’s missile tests would have raised fears in both China and the US, and spurred American action, for another powerful reason. In their enthusiasm, the Pakistanis bragged that the new Ghauri missile had “a range of over 3500 km”, and how Egyptian taxi-drivers saw Pakistan’s atom bomb and missiles as the great hope for Islam against the Israelis. The missile’s range and payload offered attractive options for those in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia who have funded Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs. Suddenly, one more of the hated “Y3 (Yankee-Yehudi-Yindoo) Axis” had come under the shadow of the Islamic Bomb. The missile also put many of PRC’s population centers within range. Unlike India, Israel cannot survive a massive nuclear attack.

Options Available to the American Administration

On most days in May-June 2002, the US administration faced the prospect of over 50,000 American dead within the next 48 hours – dwarfing the 9/11 tragedies. That they considered and acted on most of the options available to them is a matter of public record. Let us examine these options:

  1. Order evacuation of non-essential personnel. This was done, but it takes weeks to evacuate so many people. Also, evacuating the military from Pakistan would have meant losing the grip on Al Qaeda.

  2. Publicizing “simulation reports” showing millions of deaths resulting from Indo-Pak nuclear war. Done.

  3. Convey the idea that a conventional war must inevitably go nuclear, in order to pressure India to de-escalate. Done [33,35].

  4. Raise economic pressure on India. The “travel advisories” are still in place for this purpose.

  5. Bomb Pakistani terrorist /military establishments in POK. This would end the US-Pak “alliance”.

  6. Remove Pakistani control over nuclear weapons and threaten to announce the fact unless the Pakistanis took action to stop terrorism and remove the terror camps themselves.

Given the many other facets of the nuclear threat facing the US, only Option #6 would have contributed to American security – and Option #6 would indeed have solved many of the problems.

Feasibility and Opportunity for Solution

In 2002, the United States enjoys unprecedented freedom of action around the Indian subcontinent. Three aircraft carrier groups cover the Arabian Sea approaches to Pakistan (and to the Indian West Coast). Fleets of long-range heavy bombers operate out of Diego Garcia, and fighter-bombers from Kuwait and UAE. Army divisions are based in the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, and probably inside Pakistan. Several Pakistani air force bases are in US hands. The airspace is probably controlled by American controllers either from Pakistan or from the carriers. Thousands of US agents have infiltrated Pakistan, and military officers work with the ISI and the Pakistan military HQ. The nuclear establishment must have become transparent to the US following the interrogation of the senior Pakistani nuclear officials. The dictator of Pakistan is basically dependent on American support for day-to-day survival, both political and personal, with reports that even his bodyguards include FBI-trained personnel. With the Taliban already decimated and a new government in power in Afghanistan, the Pakistani dictator’s bargaining power is greatly reduced from his September 2001 levels. With the US intensely interested in events in Pakistan, the PRC was staying well away. US influence is really the Pakistanis’ only hope of preventing Indian retaliation across the LOC. Thus, in May-June 2002, the US enjoyed truly unprecedented freedom of action in Pakistan. It is worth remembering that General Musharraf’s January 12, 2002 speech to the nation was widely reported to have been cleared, if not composed, by the US State Department.

The nature of the Pakistani nuclear command-and-control structure may be inferred from the nature of the government. Unlike any nuclear power in history, Pakistan is a one-man dictatorship. Unlike democracies and Communist states, there is no reason to expect a committee in Pakistan to decide on the disposition of nuclear forces. This means that orders from the dictator constitute a “necessary and sufficient” authorization for any forces guarding nuclear assets to act. Thus a US military team, armed with a written order from General Musharraf, would be in a position to drive up to most Pakistani nuclear facilities and take control of their assets with no need for violence – and to move them out to US bases and then onto the aircraft carriers offshore. Alternatively, entire facilities could have been taken over in the name of “securing” them.

Another plausible scenario is that joint Sino-US plans were executed, where the Chinese took control of the warheads and the guidance systems of the nuclear-capable missiles. This would explain the curious tests of wobbly missiles conducted by Musharraf, and the supplies of fighter planes and the mysterious convoy, perhaps to placate Musharraf – especially since the convoy came after tensions had begun coming down. Then again, the convoy might simply have been to misinform – conveying the idea of strategic weapons moving the wrong way along the Karakoram highway.

Indications of Change

Early Indications

Is there evidence that any of this actually occurred? An article by R. Singh in “American Prospect” [40] looked at pointers available as early as January 2002. Among the points cited by Singh were:

Statements by Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar. Sattar, on Oct. 30, announced “Pakistan’s strategic assets are under foolproof custodial controls” On November 1 he disclosed that “Pakistani experts would be apprised of security measures being applied by the United States.” And further that Pakistan had accepted Secretary Of State Colin Powell’s offer to train Pakistanis “for security and protection of nuclear assets”. This sequence suggests that the nukes were already under US control, but Pakistanis might be trained to take over some tasks then being done by Americans.

Unsolicited comment by Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes during the Indian buildup after the attack on Parliament that: “those concerned with Pakistan’s nuclear program are responsible people” without mentioning whom he considered “responsible and safe” – (Author’s note: surely not General Musharraf who ordered the Kargil misadventure, and controls the terrorists attacking India?)

Report in DAWN, Dec. 6, 2001, about Italian scientists assessing Pakistani nuclear security on deputation from the Italian government, and their questions “raising concerns in the security establishment” of Pakistan. Singh’s curiosity was about the rationale behind letting such a visit occur and the report appear.

Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Alam [41] provides glimpses of the realities in Pakistan in his OpEd on May 13. Excerpts: “The question to be pondered about by the GHQ is that a scenario post-Operation Gibralter may once again be evolving, despite our deterrence now closely watched by the US who even knew in which streets and houses of Faisalabad and Lahore had 50 al-Qaeda activists taken refuge.” (Author’s note: “Operation Gibraltar” was the invasion of India ordered in 1965 by Pakistan dictator #1, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, which ended with the Field Marshal starting a new life as a London bar owner.)

American columnist Seymour Hersh claimed in [42] that US and Israeli covert nuclear facilities destruction teams had started training together soon after Sep. 11, 2001, and in October US covert teams had “explored plans for an operation inside Pakistan”. A senior military officer was quoted as “confirming that intense planning for the possible "exfiltration" of Pakistani warheads was under way, said that he had been concerned not about a military coup but about a localized insurrection by a clique of I.S.I. officers in the field who had access to a nuclear storage facility.

Sudden De-escalation

The most visible indicator of change is the sudden decision by Pakistani dictator General Musharraf to stop the terrorist infiltration into India, and to close down the terrorist camps. This was announced by US Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage following his visit with General Musharraf [42]. Whatever assurances Armitage carried with him from Islamabad were sufficient to cause an overnight mood change in New Delhi, with top Ministers citing “the word of the world powers” to assure them that Pakistan was indeed stopping terrorism. Did Indian leaders, burned by their willingness to meet Pakistanis at the Lahore summit of 1999 and the Agra summit of 2001, become satisfied with just a verbal commitment from the initiator of the Kargil War? Or did the Americans bring far more convincing arguments showing that the fundamental MAD equation in the subcontinent had changed in such a way that Pakistan would no longer be able to sustain terrorism? Did Armitage or Rumsfeld assure India that there was no real rush to attack POK any more? From the Indian government point of view, this is the best and really the only meaningful assurance that there has to be a withdrawal of the terrorists - Pakistan can no longer afford a major incident, whether ordered by Musharraf or locally initiated. Any major terrorist escalation by Pakistan within the next few months will make the Indian government look rather silly for believing these assurances. This further strengthens the hypothesis that there must be more than just promises rationalizing the new-found optimism in New Delhi.


That the Pakistani dictator’s heart was not in the assurances given to Armitage, is very clear from his subsequent interviews to BBC and Newsweek [43]. He tried reneging on his words, stating that he had not agreed to any permanent arrangement to stop terrorism. However, this was roundly rejected by the world powers, and a telephone call from Sec. Powell to Musharraf was publicized, completing the public spanking of the dictator. Japan is reported (in the Pakistani press) to have told the Pakistani Foreign Minister in “blunt and harsh terms” to stop terrorism. Britain accepted the reality of the source of trouble in J&K, calling it Pakistani “terrorism”, not “Kashmiri freedom fighters”. Russia called for Pakistan to cease terrorism. Germany reacted angrily to Musharraf’s nuclear rhetoric. China remained silent. The dictator was well and truly isolated.

Calls for Denuclearization

Buried in the reports of these angry interviews was an astonishing statement, reported by Times of India thus: “Musharraf also .. expanded the scope of his demands for keeping peace. ..The new demands include a denuclearised South Asia and for the west to ensure a conventional deterrence --i.e arm Pakistan -- "so that war never takes place in the sub-continent" [43].

The call for “denuclearized South Asia” marks a dramatic change from all previous Pakistani policy. On its face, it is an offer to abandon the ambitious nuclear program started by Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, the only Pakistani Chief Executive to be hanged to-date. Bhutto promised to develop nuclear weapons “even if Pakistanis have to eat grass to pay for it”. And indications are that they have indeed had to suffer a lot to pay for this program, and it appears not to have resulted in any technological spin-offs or economic multipliers inside Pakistan – another sign that it was mostly imported with hard cash. With nuclear weapons gone, Pakistan would be in no position to challenge India or conduct cross-border terrorism – effectively rendering the Pakistani military irrelevant in the 21st century. Arming Pakistan enough for “conventional deterrence” is a pipedream – it did not work even in 1965. From the tone of the interviews, this demand may be taken as a tantrum thrown in protest of Pakistan being forced to “give in to Indian pressure” to stop terrorism. However, other statements indicate that there is more to the “denuclearization” statement.

In a speech to Pakistani nuclear scientists a couple of days later [44], General Musharraf surprised observers as much by what he did not say, as by what he said. He declared that Pakistan’s nuclear and missile potential was “essentially defensive in nature”. Other key excerpts (emphasis added by present author):

“He commended the dedication, commitment, capacity and success of scientists that made Pakistan a nuclear state and helped manage indigenous missile capability. He said scientists of Pakistan have made their countrymen proud due to their achievements in nuclear and other fields. The president expressed his confidence that Pakistani scientists would do equally well in peaceful uses of nuclear technology. He said they must make more efforts to show Pakistan on the map of leading countries in science and technology, in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and application of science in economic development…” However, the president said the capability in the nuclear and missile fields needed to support all possible efforts towards promotion and application of nuclear technology for peaceful ends. In this connection, he referred to the achievements made by Pakistani scientists in agriculture, industry, health and electricity generation.” 

Notably missing was any sense of thanks for providing the deterrent which saved Pakistan from Indian attack, nor any sense that the deterrent needed to be further developed. Essentially, the General spoke of the nuclear and missile development efforts in the past tense, focusing entirely on “peaceful uses of nuclear energy” for the future.

Much earlier, Indian observers had wondered about the disposition of Pakistani nuclear weapons. In a May 25 article in The Times of India [45], Indian defence expert K. Subrahmanyam asked: “Has US seized Pak N-arms?” He suggested that the Pakistani missile tests could indicate that the Americans had taken charge of the country’s nuclear warheads. He pointed out that the tests were superfluous since the missiles were already tested and proven Chinese and North Korean missiles, and the fact that they were being tested over land and inhabited areas proved the point further. He further commented that the Americans could not afford to trust the Pakistanis with both missiles and nuclear warheads, given the well-known Pakistani hatred for the Americans. Another surprising indication came from the Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram [34]:"India should not have the license to kill with conventional weapons while our hands are tied". This was in the context of stating that Islamabad had never ruled out first use, and was interpreted as adding to tensions, with the audience described as “shocked and refusing to comment”. Other interpretations may explain his rage better.

A further indication of American action came in a blunt response from US President George Bush to General Musharraf’s plea to the US to release F-16 fighters for shipment to Pakistan – reported on US TV on June 11. The President rejected this request, stating that such a transfer of sophisticated weaponry would “needlessly anger people in the region”. Further, he announced that the F-16 aircraft in question were being given to a US Navy unit. This statement is interesting for several reasons. Given the sudden tests of Pakistani missiles, and their reported lack of success, it appears that the Pakistanis were desperately trying to demonstrate a credible threat from missile-carried nuclear warheads. The primary nuclear-weapon delivery vehicles available to the Pakistanis were believed to be their 1980s-vintage fleet of 28 single-seater and 12 dual-trainer F-16 aircraft. According to unofficial Indian estimates, fewer than 12 of these 40 remain flight worthy. Thus it is possible that a further infusion of F-16s would be the best way to project a Pakistani nuclear threat – a point noted and rejected by the Americans. It is also interesting that F-16s suitable for delivery to Pakistan should be given to the US Navy – which does not deploy F-16s. The obvious use of F-16s for the US Navy is to equip “aggressor” squadrons to train US Navy pilots to fight against F-16s. The only nation whose F-16s might fly against US Navy pilots is, of course, Pakistan. This point could not have gone unnoticed in Pakistan Air Force headquarters. This fits with recent Pakistani reports that during June, French Rafale fighters and airborne control stations maintained combat air patrols across the probable path of fighters flying between Karachi and Mumbai – probably to stop surprise attacks on Indian nuclear facilities near Mumbai.

Sour Nukes

Most surprising were three editorial / opinion pieces which appeared in leading Pakistani newspapers in the past week. The first was an Op-Ed in “Jang” [46], arguing that the money spent on nuclear weapons was a gross waste, because they did not win any wars for Pakistan. Excerpts:

“We thought no one could stop us from seeking "strategic depth" into Afghanistan because we have the bomb. We thought we could be on the offensive because we have the bomb to defend us. We thought that we could take the offensive into the Indian side of Kargil because we have the bomb to defend us. We also thought that we could continue "bleeding the Indian Army" in Kashmir and no one would dare block our "low cost" offensive because we have the bomb to defend us. Just look how all our policies were stumped; the bomb being largely irrelevant...Between December of last year and May of this year, all the nuclear threats that we coated the world with were mere attempts to gain world attention. .... Right after September 11, American policy-makers discovered that Pakistan could be made to do almost anything by threatening to destroy her bomb... they have been vindicated ... the bomb has actually become a liability not an asset. .. Data .. suggests that Pakistan must have spent an average of $300 million to $400 million a year over the past two decades to get to where we are today. ....The fifty million Pakistanis for whom life has been made a penalty because of trying to survive below the poverty level. The one hundred million Pakistanis who have been kept illiterate and three-quarters of all Pakistanis who don't even have access to safe drinking water. ... It will be a mistake to conclude that our bomb deterred India from undertaking strikes into Pakistani territory.”

This is an astonishing contention in a censored newspaper. Lacking nuclear weapons, Pakistan would probably have suffered a shattering conventional retaliation during the Kargil war (of course the General may not have attempted his misadventure then..), and the Bomb had indeed prevented Indian hot-pursuit operations against terror camps in POK since 1990. The second was an opinion piece, which argued that Pakistan should “Ban the Bomb” [47] because they had no nuclear deterrent any more – and advising Pakistanis to emulate the French Resistance of WWII when the invading Indian armies reached their towns and villages. Hard on the heels of this came a “prediction” by a top (Islamist) Pakistani politician, reported in “DAWN” [48] that the government would “sell out” on Pakistan’s Kashmir policy and its “strategic assets, just as it had done on its Afghanistan policy.

The above pieces are remarkable, not for being authoritative, but for their very appearance in the leading Pakistani English-language media. The editorial decision to publish [47] in particular, must make readers wonder at its purpose. Over the past decades, the Pakistani nuclear program has seldom been discussed in a context other than praise, pride and indispensability. The sudden arguments for denuclearization suggest that this idea is being encouraged for publication from influential quarters in this military-ruled country with its censorship and mediaeval repressive laws against free expression. A satirical piece in a US-based Pakistani Internet news outlet followed [49], casting the mythical “General Flathead” as stating in reply to “Where are the strategic assets?" - "Strategic assets are with those who funded them. And we all know who funded them. But it doesn’t matter. We have become wiser. “ This article is cited not as evidence of inside knowledge (though that is entirely possible, given the rumored identity of the author of this piece) but of Pakistanis/ Pakistani-Americans experienced in interpreting official statements from military rulers, drawing the same inference from events as the present author has done.


The View from America

The terrorist attacks of 2001 drove home the realization that the enemies of America had once again managed to recruit and train suicide combatants – humans who would go on missions where success by definition had to include their own death. This threat grew with the list of suicide bombings in Israel – over 70 reported by mid-June. Two suicide attacks in Karachi – one against a bus carrying French submarine technicians, and the other against the US Consulate – emphasized the large number of suicide volunteers available to Al Qaeda. There is thus no room for doubt that should Al Qaeda acquire nuclear weapons or fissile material, Americans would be targeted. What we have seen so far is that:

The thresholds of danger from the Pakistani nuclear program, which the American academia and think-tanks anticipated in Fall 2001, have been crossed in the following months.

The connection and indeed the identity between the Afghan and Pakistani components of the terrorist enterprise has been established beyond all doubt. That the Al Qaeda is alive and well in Pakistan after the destruction of Afghanistan, is obvious and has been acknowledged at the highest levels of the US Administration.

The Pakistani nuclear establishment has been tightly linked at its highest levels to Al Qaeda planners.

Events in September 2001 (Islamabad airport closing) and November 2001 (Kunduz airlift) raise strong suspicions that Pakistan had part of its nuclear assets stored in Afghanistan – and that their subsequent location was compromised to US authorities.

The stability of the deterrence equation in the Indian subcontinent has been called into question twice within 4 months – and Pakistani willingness to make nuclear blackmail threats has been demonstrated clearly.

The Shoe Bomber and the Dirty Bomber plots have both been traced to Pakistan. The shoe bomb packaging showed the handiwork of a nuclear-weapon specialist. With the Shoe Bomber trained and controlled from Pakistan, the links to the Pakistani nuclear establishment are not far to seek.

Explicit Al Qaeda threats in recent months indicate confidence (or bluff) that they still hope to attack Americans with weapons of mass destruction.

There is clear evidence that the nuclear-capable missiles in the possession of Pakistan are of Chinese and North Korean origin.

The latest version of Ghauri missile in Pakistani hands is enough to put Israel within range of nuclear annihilation by any of its enemies – who paid for the Pakistani missiles.

In May-June 2002, the American administration faced the threat of over 120,000 American citizens being exposed to imminent, all-out nuclear war. The core of this problem was the Pakistani sponsorship of international terrorism, backed by the Pakistani nuclear weapons.

The Shoe Bomber and Dirty Bomber incidents merit closer examination in the context of this paper. As terrorist plots go, both conveyed awful threats, but each suffered from incredibly poor execution. In the former, Mr. Reid is said to have obtained a new passport after putting his old one through a washing machine to remove suspicious Pakistan/ Afghanistan stamps, then been stopped and denied boarding at Paris airport, then having e-mailed Pakistan in a 4-hour internet session, and been ordered to proceed again the next day! [50]. He appears to have struck a match to his shoelaces with a flight attendant fairly close behind him – and failed to light incendiary laces after repeated attempts. What was really terrifying was that the explosives showed expertise in shaping charges for precise timing – a hallmark of the nuclear bomb development community. Why were such people incapable of executing a terror plot any better, or finding someone more competent than Mr. Reid? It appears quite probable that Mr. Reid’s jehad was not to commit suicide in blowing up the airliner, but to sacrifice by conveying a terror message more effective than an airliner crash of ambiguous cause. A similar theory can be presented for the Dirty Bomber. Again, this plot appears to have gone awry because the plotters could not lay hands on nuclear material. Both plots indicate that the terrorists have access to theory and experience from nuclear weapon development establishments – but no more access to nuclear materials.

The Chinese Aspect

As seen above, China also had strong reason to be gravely concerned with the instability of the “assets” supplied to Pakistan. Indian nuclear doctrine [51] makes it clear that the states which supplied the nuclear weapons used in an attack on India must be held accountable and targeted in a retaliatory strike. In any event, in an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange, China would be a big loser, being painted worldwide as the source of the cataclysm. There would be no way to hide the Chinese origin of the missiles, aircraft or warheads used. The possibility of anti-Communist Islamic fundamentalists getting control of these weapons has also been rising sharply, and China knows that dissident Islamic Uighur guerrillas have been training and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the terrorists controlled by the Pakistan Army. American and other western non-proliferation pressure would have linked Chinese influence on Pakistan to trade considerations – making it profitable for China to help “secure” Pakistan’s missile guidance and warhead capabilities. Thus the PRC had very strong reasons to disarm Pakistan in May-June 2002. History suggests that the PRC acts very quickly when it sees that quick action is feasible and in its interest. The PRC certainly had enough forces and influence inside Pakistan to pull off a denuclearization operation swiftly. These arguments are consistent with the observed missile tests conducted by Musharraf. Removing the guidance systems and the warheads may have been the most effective ways to assure the Indians that the danger of a Pakistani nuclear attack had been lowered.

Table 1 presents a timeline of events. Table 2 presents key pointers, with interpretations that lend to and subtract from the hypothesis of this paper. From these arguments, two points may be stated: (1) The pointers towards a denuclearization of Pakistan are circumstantial, and lean on what would have been logical for the US and PRC to do, as well as the strange behavior and statements from Musharraf. These statements indicate attempts to swing public opinion away from placing value on the nuclear deterrent and to prepare them to be told of its loss. (2) The arguments against the hypothesis depend on the world’s two superpowers - US and PRC - not having any ability to link events, nor any coherent plan or the ability to translate their congruent national imperatives, influence and on-site power into decisive action – and thus being passive spectators in a situation fraught with peril for their own interests.

Table 1: Timeline of Events

May 1998 nuclear tests

Winter - Summer 1999 Kargil invasion

Pak strategic doctrine articles cite First Use option

Pakistan threatens to use nukes if India crosses border to defeat Kargil intrusion.

Pakistan activates nukes; backs down when India wipes out NLI and US threatens to go public about Pak terrorism.

Plans for nuclear-armed navy announced.



Sep: US demands Pak cooperation to attack Taliban Islamabad airport traffic indicates urgent nuke movement. China reported to have offered nuke takeover; Pak refuses; PLA forces deputed to help secure nukes.

Oct: Public concerns about Pak nukes falling into Al Qaeda; contingency plans for removing Pak nukes.

Nov. Taliban falls. Kunduz airlift. Kabul house ties Paki nuke experts to Al Qaeda. Scientists interrogated; two flee to Myanmar. Quadir Khan retires. Pak press cites pervasive US security presence in Pak; wonders about nuke secrecy and control.

Dec. Attack on Parliament. India demands end to terrorism. Pak threatens nuke war.

Jan. 2002: Pak editorials and think tank articles espouse first-strike doctrine. China provides F-7 fighters.

Feb – April: continued standoff.


April 2002: Kaluchak terrorist attack. India goes to high alert, moves strike forces to border, demands cessation of terrorist infiltration and demolition of terrorist camps.

May 2002: Pak publishes videos of flawed tests; missiles identified as PRC-N.Korean. Pak dictator and aides visit PRC. PRC convoy spotted moving to Pak.

Britain declares Pakistan’s “Kashmir Policy” to be terrorism.

June 2002: US orders evacuation of personnel. Terror attacks in Karachi target westerners. US informs India that Pak has readied nuke weapons; threshold unpredictable. India does not stand down.

June 2002: G-8 pressure on India to be patient; on Pak to stop terrorism. Pak ministers and UN ambassador repeat threats of first use. Pak ambassador cites “tying Pakistan’s hands”.

June 2002: Armitage and Rumsfeld visits reassure India, leave Pak furious. India cites reduction of terrorism.

Musharraf denies agreeing to pull back terrorists. Refuted in public by US; Powell calls Musharraf. Musharraf retracts denial.

Musharraf cites need to denuclearize South Asia; tells scientists to turn to peaceful uses of nukes. Editorials and Op-Eds call for banning nukes, cite waste of resources and ineffectiveness of nukes. Need for “New thinking” cited in strategic doctrine. Op-Eds ask Pakistanis to prepare for street resistance to Indian invasion. Politicians “predict” sell-out of nuclear assets.


Table 2: Pointers to Denuclearization and Alternative Explanations



Alternative Explanation

Increasing levels of desperation evident in the dictator's statements.

Sudden devotion to "denuclearized South Asia" from a dictator whose only hope of sustaining terrorism is the Islamic Bomb

Useless "missile tests" conducted in haste – tapes released of obvious failures.

US technical deliberation in Oct. 2001 declaring thresholds for US to de-nuke Pak.

Over 120,000 US citizens were in imminent danger unless Pakistan was denuclearized.

Sudden "U-turn" in the dictator's nuclear threats in the past month. 

US report of warhead installation on Pak missiles in late May - warheads tracked from storage.

 Evidence that the US has penetrated and is in control of Pak airspace, airports, telephone networks, sea-lanes, airbases, can dictate movements of their police and armed forces, and arrest and export terrorist suspects at will - even top-level nuclear scientists. Eight top-level Paki nuclear establishment managers/ scientists have undergone repeated US interrogation as early as Oct. 2001. Two more top Paki nuclear scientists in refuge in Myanmar.

 Reports of heightened PRC movement of personnel and equipment to and from TSP along the Karakoram highway.

 A report from a top-level Indian nuclear expert inferring that Pakistan was de-nuked.

. Arguments based on the above that the nuclear "tests" of May 1998 used Chinese devices intended purely to convey a deterrent - hence Pakistan never has developed anything more dangerous than radioactive waste.

 Logical decision-making would have led the US and the PRC to de-nuke the dictatorship


Musharraf may believe war is imminent.

Offer was part of a 3-point statement which included a demand for stable conventional deterrence – rendering nukes superfluous..

Tests are a signal to international community. May be due to domestic pressure to match Agni 1 test.

Large distinction between public statements by non-officials and official action.

Estimate of 60,000 Americans in Pakistan not adequately proven.

The threats were not working, causing international anxiety. Hence a policy shift

Warhead availability in late May negates hypothesis of earlier removal of weapons.

US has to get their permission to work with them on the Afghan border, and US press reports dissatisfaction with that cooperation. Clear from these reports that Pakistan worked to cooperate with the US (after some initial stonewalling), and to demonstrate to the US that this is not the "norm" - again implying that this level of US involvement in Pakistani nuclear affairs may be the exception rather than the rule.  

Natural during a period of heightened military threat. Began in late Dec./early January, Including deliveries of F-7s.

Article is op-ed and interpretation, not an intelligence assessment. Lacks anything beyond circumstantial evidence.

They blew up something nuclear in May 1998. Publicly available analysis suggests that the weapons might be part of a much larger, more sophisticated Pakistani nuclear weapons program that is largely self-sustaining at this point.

What is logical need not be feasible.



This paper has explored a radical hypothesis: that for the first time in history, a declared nuclear-weapon state has been denuclearized against its will through external intervention – and without outright hostilities. What we can state from the evidence is the following:

Both the United States and the People’s Republic of China had congruent national interests and an unprecedented opportunity to neutralize a grave threat – and the resources, motivation and imperative to do so – within the period from September 11, 2001 to June 16, 2002.

There is no longer any reason to believe, from an examination of available information, that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan possesses the capability to deploy or use nuclear weapons.


The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable discussions conducted on this and related issues on the Bharat-Rakshak Forum,, and the enthusiastic contributions of the many participants.


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