How Ronald Reagan Brought Us the 'Islamic Bomb' -- and Hid it From Congress

The Right Wing

On the centennial of President Reagan's birth, it may be fine to remember him warmly for all his positive personal qualities, his optimism about the future, and his belief in this country. But it is dangerous to our country's future if we bow at the altar of his policies and follow his example.

Domestically, for example, Reagan popularized the dangerous idea that we could have something for nothing -- that lowering tax rates generates increased, not decreased, revenues, a 20th-century economic alchemy that has produced a $14 trillion national debt. In foreign policy Reagan inserted troops in Lebanon where lax security allowed the first Islamist attack against Americans, killing more than 200 marines. (He then tucked tail and ran out of the country, but no one called him weak.) He traded arms for hostages with Iran, yet no one on the Right called him an appeaser.

Nothing, however, compares with his allowing Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons, referred to, even at the time, as the "Islamic bomb."

As noted in George Crile, Jr's, Charlie Wilson's War, General Zia al-Haq, the Pakistani dictator, made a deal with Reagan. He would allow the CIA to use Pakistani territory to supply and train the Afghan mujahedeen with increasingly sophisticated weapons (eventually shoulder-to-air Stinger missiles to destroy Soviet helicopter gunships that were terrorizing the Afghan people), so long as Reagan would not interfere or object to Pakistan's ongoing development of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps it is Monday-morning quarterbacking to criticize Reagan too strongly over his military support for the mujahedeen on the grounds that it led to the creation of a trained and equipped al-Qaeda. Perhaps too many subsequent events had to occur exactly as they did for al-Qaeda to have arisen from that aid to render the threat from al-Qaeda reasonably foreseeable. Although aiding their victory over the Soviet Union provided the United States no goodwill from Islamic fundamentalists, who considered U.S. aid simply an instrument of Allah, perhaps handing the Soviet Union a taste of its own "Vietnam" medicine was necessary to temper its enthusiasm for military adventurism, and thus worth the consequences even if they had been foreseeable.

But no hindsight is needed to recognize the recklessness of providing a green light to Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons. From the outset, it was to be not only "Pakistan's deterrent," but the "Islamic bomb," potentially available to other Islamic nations (such as Libya that was on the road to acquiring it from Pakistan). And it was being developed by a nation that had seen its dictator, Zia al-Haq, impose Islamic law. There was no mystery about who Zia was, and how he saw the world.

Reagan's OK was clear and unambiguous:

The dirty little secret of the Afghan war was that Zia had extracted a concession early on from Reagan: Pakistan would work with the CIA against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and in return the United States would not only provide massive aid, but would agree to look the other way on the question of the bomb. (Charlie Wilson's War, p. 463.)

It was an unwritten rule of the Cold War that the two superpowers would not, publicly, have a military face-off. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was about all the direct military confrontation the world could survive. Thus, just as Soviet support to North Vietnam was obvious but never directly acknowledged, so U.S. aid to the mujahedeen had to remain "covert," and the U.S. went to great lengths to hide the chain of evidence establishing a direct link. Keeping that part of the deal secret was standard operating procedure.

But the reason to keep the "Islamic bomb" information secret is that both Congress and the public would have erupted, had they known that the price for sticking it to the Soviet Union was for fundamentalist Pakistan to become a nuclear power:

Zia understood, however, that if he were ever caught red-handed, the White House could not protect him from the wrath of Congress. (ibid.)

Indeed, had the Congress known, the Solarz Amendment would have required all aid to be cut off.

The right wing, and some others, give Reagan "credit" for ending the Cold War. The concept, I believe, is that the Soviet Union's economy could not keep pace with Reagan's defense build-up. I believe the demise of the Soviet Union was due more to the courage of a union leader and movement in Poland that forced Gorbachev’s hand, and the inability of a closed economy to keep pace with personal computers and fax machines, but the matter is debatable, and not highly relevant anymore. The implosion of the Soviet Union was inevitable, U.S. policies since George Kennan and Harry Truman played a critical role, and it was certainly not the doing of one person or one policy.

The Islamic bomb is.

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