WikiLeaks Revelation: How US Policy in Pakistan Heightens the Risk of Nuclear Attack
There are few scenarios more frightening for America than a domestic nuclear terrorist incident, which could kill tens of thousands of people, devastate the economy and turn America into a police state. And the greatest potential source of nuclear materials for such an incident lies in Pakistan. As a March 2010 Harvard study reported, Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile “faces a greater threat from Islamic extremists seeking nuclear weapons than any other nuclear stockpile on earth.”
The single most significant revelation of the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks is thus that U.S. policy is actually increasing the danger of a nuclear incident. The cables reveal that the U.S. has so alienated the Pakistani people that their government fears cooperating with Washington on nuclear matters; that the U.S.-India nuclear energy agreement has convinced Pakistani officials to enlarge their already unstable nuclear stockpile; and that Washington has expanded U.S. military operations into Pakistan in a way that Ambassador Anne Patterson herself secretly admitted “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state” (9-23-09 cable). These newly disclosed official U.S. cables, which strongly point to the growing threat to Americans from mismanaged U.S. policy, require urgent congressional hearings, greater media investigation and public protest.
The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by an extremist, supported by large sectors of Pakistani public opinion, as well as the rest of Taseer’s bodyguards, is an urgent wakeup call about the growing danger to the security of Pakistani nukes from the 120-130,000 Pakistanis working at nuclear sites. Steve Coll has reported in the New Yorker that “Pakistan’s Personnel Reliability Programs, as they are known in the nuclear security trade, involve not only evaluating the suitability of bodyguards for governors but also the management of the country’s swelling stockpile of fissile materials and nuclear bombs. Taseer’s betrayal should give pause to those officials in Washington who seem regularly to express complacency, or at least satisfaction, about the security of Pakistan’s arsenal.”
Despite this, however, the Obama Administration is still pushing for the very policies that are destabilizing Pakistan and its nuclear materials – as revealed by the Wikileaks cable. While outside observers have criticized U.S. policy towards Pakistan, the critical importance of the Wikileaks cables is that they offer official proof that (1) U.S. and allied experts are extremely worried about the instability of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile; and (2) U.S. policy is destabilizing both Pakistan and its nuclear materials, and thus endangering U.S. national security.
Patterson’s cables also reveal that U.S. leaders know that present policy is destabilizing Pakistan, thus making a nuclear disaster more likely. Referring to U.S. “unilateral operations” in northwest Pakistan (such as drone strikes, ground assassination and other infringements of Pakistani sovereignty), she wrote that “increased unilateral operations in these areas risk destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis in Pakistan without finally achieving the goal.” She then added that “to be effective, we must extend the writ of the Pakistani state into the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] in such a way that Taliban groups can no longer offer effective protection to al-Qaeda from Pakistan’s own security and law enforcement agencies in these areas” (9-23-09 cable).
Incredibly, however, U.S. leaders have only escalated the very operations their own officials believe risk destabilizing the Pakistani state. They have vastly increased U.S. drone strikes and stationed both U.S. assassins and U.S.-supported local assassins on Pakistani soil—even though the Pakistani government has not extended its “writ” in FATA as reported in November. These unilateral operations have thus increased the public’s hatred of the United States, to the point where a Pew poll in July found that 59 percent of Pakistanis regard the U.S. as an “enemy” and only 11 percent view America as a “partner”.
These cables thus reveal that it is U.S. foreign policy that is jeopardizing national security, not WikiLeaks. And WikiLeaks can actually help strengthen U.S. national security if in response the Congress and the public act to change America’s disastrous policy toward Pakistan and thus reduce the nuclear terrorist threat. The American people may disapprove of Julian Assange by a 77-20 margin, but they owe the WikiLeaks editor their thanks for revealing the growing danger they face from wrongheaded U.S. policy.
To those who consider it alarmist to raise urgent calls to change U.S. policies to secure Pakistani nukes, there is a simple response: “the Shah of Iran.” Throughout the 1970s, U.S. leaders strongly supported the shah, with Henry Kissinger even foolishly making him the lynchpin of his “Nixon Doctrine,” while ignoring the growing hatred the Iranian people felt toward their tyrant. Just three months before the shah fell, U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan stated that “the riots erupting in provincial cities would play themselves out and were not a cause of major concern.” The U.S. government disastrously miscalculated in ignoring local public opinion in Iran. It is even more foolishly doing something similar today in Pakistan, which, unlike Iran then, has both nuclear weapons and an economy on the verge of collapse.
Because we psychologically turn to our leaders above all for protection, it is difficult to accept that they could really be endangering us. But the WikiLeaks documents reveal beyond any doubt that those making U.S. foreign policy cannot be trusted to protect Americans. In fact, the lives of countless Americans—not to mention even more non-Americans—depend on opening up our foreign policy to democratic control so that our leaders’ present bungling and crimes can be ended.
Many Establishment observers have falsely asserted that there is nothing new in the WikiLeaks cables, and that they in fact reveal a competent foreign policy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cables reveal an enormous amount that has been heretofore unknown and a breathtaking incoherence in Washington’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy: The more that U.S. leaders wage war in tiny Afghanistan, the more they destabilize giant Pakistan and increase the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
Even after reporting for Truthdig for 18 months now on how U.S. policy has been dangerously and recklessly destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, I am amazed at how much new information these cables reveal. Outside experts have been warning of the dangers of Pakistan nuclear proliferation for years. It is only because of WikiLeaks, however, that we now realize how deeply U.S. and allied officials are also concerned about the issue:
Ambassador Patterson reported that “our major concern has not been that an Islamic militant could steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in [Pakistani government] facilities could gradually smuggle enough fissile material out to eventually make a weapon and the vulnerability of weapons in transit” (2-4-09 cable).
A Sept. 22, 2009, cable regarding a meeting with U.K. expert Mariot Leslie reported that “the UK has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. ... In Leslie’s view, the risk of proliferation is a bigger threat than terrorism but it ranks lower than terrorism on the public’s list of perceived threats. She flagged efforts both by states and by terrorist groups to obtain nuclear weapons” (9-22-09 cable).
U.S. national intelligence officer Peter Lavoy reported that “Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world” (12-5-08 cable).
One Russian foreign ministry official explained that “Russia assesses that Islamists are not only seeking power in Pakistan but are also trying to get their hands on nuclear materials. ... There are 120,000-130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs, working in these facilities and protecting them. However, regardless of the clearance process for these people, there is no way to guarantee that all are 100% loyal and reliable. Extremist organizations have more opportunities to recruit people working in the nuclear and missile programs. Also, even if places are well protected, transportation of materials is a vulnerable point. In Pakistan, it is hard to guarantee the security of these materials during transportation” (undated cable). Since 59 percent of the Pakistani people regard the U.S. as an “enemy”, according to polling results, this means that it is likely that a significant, if smaller, portion of the 120,000 to 130,000 people “directly involved in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs” do so as well.
Ambassador Patterson reported that “one of the reasons Pakistan opposes the [nuclear proliferation] treaty is that it is building an arsenal of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons. Pakistani military planners believe that Pakistan needs to transform its arsenal to smaller, tactical weapons that could be used on the battlefield against Indian conventional capabilities. The result of this trend is the need for greater stocks of fissile material to feed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons requirement” (11-24-09 cable). She also described how the U.S.-India nuclear energy agreement has led Pakistan to develop even more nuclear weapons: “Pakistani officials perceive the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation initiative as having unshackled India’s nuclear weapons program. Prior to the initiative, they said, India faced a significant uranium supply constraint that forced it to choose literally between nuclear weapons or nuclear power. Now, however, India is able to secure foreign-supplied uranium for its civil nuclear power reactors, leaving it free to devote a greater share of its domestically-sourced uranium to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.” This was a key reason, she explained, why Pakistan was resisting the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and planning to build more nuclear weapons (11-24-09 cable).
While Pakistan was resisting the FMCT, Patterson wrote, “direct U.S. pressure is unlikely to convince them to support FMCT negotiations, and may even hurt efforts to move forward” (11-24-09 cable). Patterson describes the U.S.-Pakistani relationship as one of “mutual distrust,” saying that “the relationship is one of co-dependency we grudgingly admit—Pakistan knows the U.S. cannot afford to walk away; the U.S. knows Pakistan cannot survive without our support” (2-21-09 cable). That is, despite the fact that the Pakistani government depends on U.S. aid for its very survival, the U.S. has so bungled its overall Pakistan policy that it cannot meaningfully move to reduce the threat of Pakistani nuclear proliferation, e.g. by encouraging Pakistan to sign the FMCT.
Although these cables reveal a deep official concern about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear materials, however, none of this was shared with the American public. “We’ve given [the Pakistanis] assistance in improving their security arrangements over the past number of years. Based on the information available to us that gives us … comfort,” read a typical official statement by Defense Secretary Gates in December 2009. But as The New York Times reported on Nov. 30, 2010, on the nuclear fuel that Pakistan was supposed to transfer to the U.S., “the fuel is still there.” And as Pakistan continues to produce “nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world,” the danger is clearly increasing (12-5-08 cable).
The second major issue revealed by the leaked cables is that while U.S. and other Western officials fear Pakistani nuclear proliferation, they are pursuing policies that make a nuclear incident more likely. As the Russian foreign ministry official cited above makes clear, the issue for the U.S. is not a narrow one, meaning a specific effort to secure this or that plant. The U.S. can secure Pakistani’s nuclear materials only by changing its present overall policy. By turning the vast majority of Pakistanis against the U.S., American leaders have made Pakistan’s government reluctant to cooperate on nuclear matters and have therefore increased the danger of nuclear theft among the more than 100,000 Pakistani workers at nuclear facilities.
The cables reveal that the threat to the West has geometrically increased as a result of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In one leaked document, then-shadow and now actual British Prime Minister David Cameron was reported to have raised the concern: “Cameron noted that most of the approximately one million UK citizens of Pakistani origin (mostly Punjabis and Kashmiris) living in the UK were not pro-Taliban but had been radicalized by the Iraq war” (4-9-09 cable).
U.S. foreign policy toward Pakistan must aim at improving favorability among its people so that the U.S. can then cooperate with its government on nuclear matters, but Ambassador Patterson reported that the opposite is occurring: “America is viewed with some suspicion by the majority of Pakistan’s people and its institutions. We are viewed at best as a fickle friend, and at worst as the reason why Pakistan is attacking its own. …”
There are many reasons why Pakistanis hate America, of course, including the perception that the U.S. is pro-India. But these cables reveal that the U.S. is pursuing policies, such as support for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari , that increase this hatred rather than diminish it. On the one hand, Patterson wrote “Zardari is our best ally in Pakistan right now” and recommended strong support for him. On the other, she acknowledges that Zardari has an “approval rating [of only] 20%” and that he “sees himself as viewing the world the way Americans do; this same image works against him with the public” (2-04-09 and 6-20-09 cables). So why is the U.S. supporting a leader as despised by his own people as was the Shah of Iran? Patterson explains: “Zardari is less likely to make public announcements chastising the USG [U.S. government] for its policies in, and toward Pakistan (including on USG drone activity) than other senior GOP [government of Pakistan] officials” (6-20-09 cable). That is, while polls indicate that the Pakistani people overwhelmingly oppose drone assassinations, the U.S. is aligning itself with a hated leader who does not have the support of his people at least partly because he secretly supports the strikes.
The cables also reveal that U.S. war-fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan is strengthening jihadi forces in Pakistan, most ominously in its Punjabi heartland, not just border regions. According to a 12-05-08 cable, former National Intelligence Officer for South Asia Peter Lavoy “commented on two causes of instability in western Pakistan that could cause Pakistan to completely lose control of its Pashtun territories over the next few years.” The cable went on to say in paraphrasing Lavoy: “Traditional Pashtun tribal authority has broken down since the anti-Soviet jihad period, and is no longer capable of resolving social harmony at the community level. Pakistan has also promulgated a policy of neglect of Pashtun areas and still lacks a strategy to deal holistically with social problems of illiteracy, unemployment, and disaffected youth. Both of these situations play to the advantage of insurgent and extremist groups.”
A Feb. 19, 2009, cable from Patterson reveals that Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez “Kayani raised concern about the effect of a U.S. troop build-up in southern Afghanistan, which could push militants and refugees across the border into Balochistan and prompt an influx of foreign fighters.” Patterson reported that “even in the south of the prosperous Punjab we have seen an increasing trend to extremism among youth” (6-20-09 cable). That is, U.S. war-making in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest territories are pushing more militants into the Pakistani heartland, increasing rather than diminishing the threat they pose to the Pakistani state.
While the government of Pakistan would, according to Patterson, prefer a strategy of “dialogue, deterrence and development,” the U.S. government has instead forced its ally to undertake offensives in both the Swat Valley and south Waziristan. Washington should tell Kayani, Patterson wrote, that “it will be difficult for international donors to support a government that is not prepared to go all-out to defend its own territory” (2-04-09, 2-19-09 cables).
The cables also reveal for the first time that the U.S. has gone even further in increasing anti-American hatred by secretly deploying Special Forces assassins in Pakistan. Patterson wrote that “the Pakistani Army has for just the second time approved deployment of U.S. special operation elements to support Pakistani military operations. ... These deployments are highly politically sensitive because of widely-held concerns among the public about Pakistani sovereignty and opposition to allowing foreign military forces to operate in any fashion on Pakistani soil” (10-09-09 cable). Celebrating this “sea change in Pakistani thinking,” Patterson indicated that this would lead to more U.S. assassination activities within Pakistan, saying that the first deployment “likely helped catalyze the follow-up requests for new and repeat support.”
The overall message from the WikiLeaks cables, therefore, is clear: A disastrously bungled U.S. policy toward Pakistan has led a majority of the Pakistani people to see the U.S. as their “enemy” and strengthened jihadi forces in both the northwest territories and Punjab heartland and thus made it more likely that anti-American forces could obtain Pakistani nuclear materials.
And these cables thus prove that America faces a basic choice: It can continue to try to win in Afghanistan and thus continue to destabilize the Pakistani state, increasing the danger of a nuclear incident. Or it can withdraw from Afghanistan, use a portion of the $100 billion it is annually wasting there to help restore the Pakistan economy, end the drone strikes, ground assassinations and other infringements of Pakistani sovereignty, and seek to build a new relationship with the Pakistani people so that their government will no longer fear openly cooperating with America to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear materials.
Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Pakistan came amid growing signs that the Obama administration is finally waking up to the growing crisis there that its policies have helped produce for the past 18 months. The question now is whether U.S. policy-makers will realize that they have been destabilizing already-fragile Pakistan and redirect their efforts toward more constructive ends.
There is reason to believe such a reformed policy could work. A Pew poll last July revealed that while only 17 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. favorably, 64 percent desire better relations. If the U.S. was to practice what it preaches and respect the Pakistani public’s democratic desires, it would be possible to create a foreign policy that would see the Pakistani and U.S. governments working together to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation, thus enhancing U.S. national security rather than continuing to weaken it.
If U.S. policy toward Pakistan changes in a way that increases U.S. national security, it will be due in no small part to the courage of those who revealed how U.S. policy is increasing the likelihood of nuclear proliferation and a devastating attack on U.S. soil. The American people owe Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, the website’s sources and its volunteers their gratitude.