The Obama administration has been negotiating highly sensitive understandings with the Pakistan army, the influential magazine ‘The New Yorker' says in a detailed report by world famous Pulitzer prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, published in its latest issue.
“The Pakistanis gave us a virtual look at the number of warheads, some of their locations, and their command-and-control system,” Hersh quotes a former senior US intelligence official.
“We saw their target list and their mobilization plans. We got their security plans, so we could augment them in case of a breach of security,” he said.
“We're there to help the Pakistanis, but we're also there to extend our own axis of security to their nuclear stockpile.”The secret understandings between the US and Pakistan would allow specially trained American units to provide added security for the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in case of a crisis, the report said.
The 7,000-word article said the Pakistani military would be given money to equip and train Pakistani soldiers and to improve their housing and facilities — goals that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of the Pakistan Army, has long desired.
Hersh quoted former President Musharraf, after an interview with him in London recently, saying that his government had held extensive discussions with the Bush Administration after 9/11 attacks, and had given State Department non-proliferation experts insight into the command and control of the Pakistani arsenal and its on-site safety and security procedures.
Musharraf also confirmed that Pakistan had constructed a huge tunnel system for the transport and storage of nuclear weaponry. “The tunnels are so deep that a nuclear attack will not touch them,” Musharraf told me, with obvious pride. The tunnels would make it impossible for the American intelligence community—“Big Uncle,” as a Pakistani nuclear-weapons expert called it — to monitor the movements of nuclear components by satellite.
Safeguards have been built into the system. Pakistani nuclear doctrine calls for the warheads (containing an enriched radioactive core) and their triggers (sophisticated devices containing highly explosive lenses, detonators, and krytrons) to be stored separately from each other and from their delivery devices (missiles or aircraft).
The goal is to ensure that no one can launch a warhead — in the heat of a showdown with India, for example — without pausing to put it together. Final authority to order a nuclear strike requires consensus within Pakistan's 10-member National Command Authority, with the chairman — by statute, President Zardari — casting the deciding vote.
Hersh quoted an American former senior intelligence official saying that a team that has trained for years to remove or dismantle parts of the Pakistani arsenal has now been augmented by a unit of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the elite counterterrorism group. He added that the unit, which had earlier focused on the warheads' cores, has begun to concentrate on evacuating the triggers, which have no radioactive material and are thus much easier to handle.
The detailed American planning even includes an estimate of how many nuclear triggers could be placed inside a C-17 cargo plane, the former official said, and where the triggers could be sequestered. Admiral Mullen, asked about increased American insight into the arsenal, said, through his spokesman, “I am not aware of our receipt of any such information.” A senior military officer added that the information, if it had been conveyed, would most likely “have gone to another government agency.”
Early this summer, a consultant to the Department of Defense said a highly classified military and civil-emergency response team was put on alert after receiving an urgent report from American intelligence officials indicating that a Pakistani nuclear component had gone astray.
The team, which operates clandestinely and includes terrorism and nonproliferation experts from the intelligence community, the Pentagon, the FBI, and the DOE, is under standing orders to deploy from Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, within four hours of an alert. When the report turned out to be a false alarm, the mission was aborted, the consultant said. By the time the team got the message, it was already in Dubai.
A spokesman for the Pakistani military said, in an official denial, “Pakistan neither needs any American unit for enhancing the security for its arsenal nor would accept it.” The spokesman added that the Pakistani military “has been providing protection to US troops in a situation of crisis” — a reference to Pakistan's role in the war on terror — “and hence is quite capable to deal with any untoward situation.”
Hersh said the arsenal was a source of great pride among Pakistanis, who view the weapons as symbols of their nation's status and as an essential deterrent against an attack by India.
After interviews with several current and former officials, Hersh reported that the Pakistan Army was in full control of the nuclear arsenal, but the Taliban overrunning Islamabad was not the only, or even the greatest, concern. “The principal fear is mutiny — that extremists inside the Pakistani military might stage a coup, take control of some nuclear assets, or even divert a warhead.”
Hersh said a senior Pakistani official who has close ties to Zardari exploded with anger during an interview when the subject turned to the American demands for more information about the arsenal. After the September 11th attacks, he said, there had been an understanding between the Bush Administration and then President Pervez Musharraf “over what Pakistan had and did not have.”
Today, he said, “you'd like control of our day-to-day deployment. But why should we give it to you? Even if there was a military coup d'état in Pakistan, no one is going to give up total control of our nuclear weapons. Never. Why are you not afraid of India's nuclear weapons?” the official asked. “Because India is your friend, and the longtime policies of America and India converge. Between you and the Indians, you will — (four letter word) — us in every way. The truth is that our weapons are less of a problem for the Obama Administration than finding a respectable way out of Afghanistan.”
The magazine said: “The ongoing consultation on nuclear security between Washington and Islamabad intensified after the announcement in March of President Obama's so-called Af-Pak policy, which called upon the Pakistan Army to take more aggressive action against Taliban enclaves inside Pakistan.
“I was told that the understandings on nuclear cooperation benefitted from the increasingly close relationship between Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Kayani, his counterpart, although the CIA and the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy have also been involved.” Hersh said.
The magazine said all three departments declined to comment for this article. The national-security council and the CIA denied that there were any agreements in place.
In response to a series of questions, Admiral Mullen acknowledged that he and Kayani were, in his spokesman's words, “very close.” The spokesman said that Mullen is deeply involved in day-to-day Pakistani developments and “is almost an action officer for all things Pakistan.” But he denied that he and Kayani, or their staffs, had reached an understanding about the availability of American forces in case of mutiny or a terrorist threat to a nuclear facility.
“To my knowledge, we have no military units, special forces or otherwise, involved in such an assignment,” Mullen said through his spokesman. The spokesman added that Mullen had not seen any evidence of growing fundamentalism inside the Pakistani military.
In interviews in Pakistan, Hersh obtained confirmation that there were continuing conversations with the United States on nuclear-security plans — as well as evidence that the Pakistani leadership put much less weight on them than the Americans did. In some cases, Pakistani officials spoke of the talks principally as a means of placating anxious American politicians. “You needed it,” a senior Pakistani official, who said that he had been briefed on the nuclear issue, told me. His tone was caustic.
“We have twenty thousand people working in the nuclear-weapons industry in Pakistan, and here is this American view that Pakistan is bound to fail.” The official added, “The Americans are saying, ‘We want to help protect your weapons.' We say, ‘Fine. Tell us what you can do for us.' It's part of a quid pro quo. You say, also, ‘Come clean on the nuclear program and we'll insure that India doesn't put pressure on it.' So we say, ‘O.K.' ” But, the Pakistani official said, “both sides are lying to each other. We haven't told you anything that you don't know.” The Americans didn't realise that Pakistan would never cede control of its arsenal: “If you try to take the weapons away, you will fail.”
In an actual crisis, would the Pakistanis give an American team direct access to their arsenal? An adviser to the Pentagon on counterinsurgency said that some analysts suspected that the Pakistani military had taken steps to move elements of the nuclear arsenal “out of the count” — to shift them to a storage facility known only to a very few — as a hedge against mutiny or an American or Indian effort to seize them. “If you thought your American ally was telling your enemy where the weapons were, you'd do the same thing,” the adviser said.
“Let me say this about our nuclear deterrent,” President Zardari told me, when asked about any recent understandings between Pakistan and the United States. “We give comfort to each other, and the comfort level is good, because everybody respects everybody's integrity. We're all big boys.”
Zardari and I met twice, first in his office, in the grand but isolated Presidential compound in Islamabad, and then, a few days later, alone over dinner in his personal quarters. He is chatty but guarded, proud but defensive, and, like many Pakistanis, convinced that the United States will always favor India. Over dinner, he spoke of his suspicions regarding his wife's death. He said that, despite rumors to the contrary, he would complete his five-year term.
Zardari spoke with derision about what he depicted as America's obsession with the vulnerability of his nation's nuclear arsenal. “In your country, you feel that you have to hold the fort for us,” he said. “The American people want a lot of answers for the errors of the past, and it's very easy to spread fear. Our Army officers are not crazy, like the Taliban. They're British-trained. Why would they slip up on nuclear security? A mutiny would never happen in Pakistan. It's a fear being spread by the few who seek to scare the many.”
Zardari offered some advice to Barack Obama: instead of fretting about nuclear security in Pakistan, his Administration should deal with the military disparity between Pakistan and India, which has a much larger army. “You should help us get conventional weapons,” he said. “It's a balance-of-power issue.”
In May, Zardari, at the urging of the United States, approved a major offensive against the Taliban, sending thirty thousand troops into the Swat Valley, which lies a hundred miles northwest of Islamabad. “The enemy that we were fighting in Swat was made up of twenty per cent thieves and thugs and eighty per cent with the same mind-set as the Taliban,” Zardari said. He depicted the operation as a complete success, but added that his government was not “ready” to kill all the Taliban. His long-term solution, Zardari said, was to provide new business opportunities in Swat and turn the Taliban into entrepreneurs. “Money is the best incentive,” he said. “They can be rented.”
A former State Department official who worked on nuclear issues with Pakistan after September 11th said that he'd come to understand that the Pakistanis “believe that any information we get from them would be shared with others — perhaps even the Indians. To know the command-and-control processes of their nuclear weapons is one thing. To know where the weapons actually are is another thing.”
The former State Department official cited the large Pakistan Air Force base outside Sargodha, west of Lahore, where many of Pakistan's nuclear-capable F-16s are thought to be stationed. “Is there a nuke ready to go at Sargodha?” the former official asked. “If there is, and Sargodha is the size of Andrews Air Force Base, would we know where to go? Are the warheads stored in Bunker X?” Ignorance could be dangerous. “If our people don't know where to go and we suddenly show up at a base, there will be a lot of people shooting at them,” he said. “And even if the Pakistanis may have told us that the triggers will be at Bunker X, is it true?”
The former high-level Bush Administration official was just as blunt. “If a Pakistani general is talking to you about nuclear issues, and his lips are moving, he's lying,” he said. “The Pakistanis wouldn't share their secrets with anybody, and certainly not with a country that, from their point of view, used them like a Dixie cup and then threw them away.”
Hersh flew to New Delhi from Pakistan and met with two senior officials from the Research and Analysis Wing, India's national intelligence agency. Our worries are about the nuclear weapons in Pakistan,” one of the officials said. “Not because we are worried about the mullahs taking over the country; we're worried about those senior officers in the Pakistan Army who are Caliphates” — believers in a fundamentalist pan-Islamic state.
“We know some of them and we have names,” he said. “We've been watching colonels who are now brigadiers. These are the guys who could blackmail the whole world” — that is, by seizing a nuclear weapon.
The article by Hersh also quoted noted journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, Group Editor of The News Shaheen Sehbai, Lt General (retired) Hamid Gul, writer Brian Cloughley, Sultan Amir Tarar, known to many as Colonel Imam, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy and others, reports The News, Islamabad