By Susanne Koelbl
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari: “Stated flatly to Ambassador that the government of Pakistan would have no choice but to retaliate if attacked, and post has no doubt they are sincere.”
The instructions came directly from then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and she didn’t beat around the bush. “Express Washington’s strong opposition to the release of Dr. Khan and urge the Government of Pakistan to continue holding him under house arrest,” Rice wrote to her ambassador, Anne Patterson, in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
It was April 2008, and the US administration was deeply concerned about reports that the man widely believed to be the biggest nuclear smuggler of all time, Pakistan’s Abdul Qadir Khan, could soon be a free man. Khan had allegedly supported North Korea, Iran and Libya in their nuclear programs by supplying them with plans and centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Although the Americans had exposed his proliferation ring back in 2004, and the nuclear scientist had confessed, probably under pressure from the government, Khan was never indicted or convicted in Pakistan, but merely placed under house arrest.
Ambassador Patterson, a resolute 59-year-old from Arkansas, immediately went into action. Her key contact was the head of the army’s Strategic Plans Division, Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, who was responsible for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Kidwai had previously made sure that Khan was unable to do any further damage. Patterson also spoke with then-President Pervez Musharraf, who assured the US ambassador that there was nothing to worry about: “He will not be released.”
Kidwai, however, saw complications: “His legal status was that he was a free man. … If he tried to walk out today, … the government of Pakistan had no legal grounds to stop him.”
Appeasing the Americans
On Feb. 6, 2009, a court rescinded Khan’s house arrest, effective immediately. The news caught the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, completely off guard. Ambassador Patterson, for her part, was incensed over the “persistent lack of coordination” of the government in Islamabad. In response to her protest, however, Zardari and his interior minister guaranteed her that they would try to “establish a legal basis for Khan’s detention.”
That is exactly what they did. Today, Khan is once again cut off from the rest of the world. He is fighting a renewed legal battle in the courts against his house arrest — a state of affairs whose main purpose is to appease the Americans.
The Pakistanis’ sophisticated nuclear program is one of the main reasons why the US continues to increase its involvement in the region. The Americans know how unstable the country is, and how weak the government is. They also reveal how the Pakistani military and intelligence agency play the political game according to their own rules.
Hundreds of the diplomatic protocols deal exclusively with the threat posed by the nuclear weapons that the US’s unstable ally has in its possession. “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon,” reads one dispatch sent by the embassy in Islamabad to Richard Holbrooke, the US’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Taking Pakistan’s Nukes
The Americans would prefer to have complete control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal but, as the reports show, they are a long way from achieving this goal. During his visit, Holbrooke merely received a briefing on the “physical, personnel and command and control safeguards for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.” The security technology at the nuclear facilities was significantly improved with help from the US. Nevertheless, the Pakistanis firmly reject any further involvement on the part of the Americans.
For instance, they oppose the plan to send spent fuel rods back to the US. The Americans supplied these elements for use in a research reactor a number of years ago. The man responsible for this decision, the director for disarmament in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, justified the endless delays by saying “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.'”
These nuclear warheads are located in a country where it is unclear who stands on which side. To make matters worse, it’s hard to determine exactly what role the country’s notorious intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), plays in Pakistan. It’s rare that anyone expresses themselves as clearly as John Dister of the National Intelligence Council, a think tank for the US intelligence agencies. “When the ISI supports the Taliban, one can assume it is acting on government of Pakistan orders,” Dister is quoted as telling NATO allies in early 2008, at a time when President Musharraf was still governing. According to the dispatch, Dister “noted the huge anxiety in Pakistan leadership circles that US/NATO will pull out of Afghanistan in the near future, leaving chaos, thus causing the ISI to maintain links with Taliban as a hedge.” Dister added that Pakistan’s intelligence community is also motivated by fears that India may become more actively involved in Afghanistan.
Relations between Pakistan and the US are a constant rollercoaster ride, full of tensions and an endless tug-of-war over concessions, military operations and opposing notions of strategies. US senators, top military brass and US special envoy Richard Holbrooke make a steady stream of visits to Islamabad. Because of the billions of dollars in military aid that it gives to Pakistan, the US reserves the right to intervene in the country’s security issues, up to and including decisions about key positions.
‘Out of Control’
“We have learned since 9/11 that Pakistan responds, periodically, to US pressure on counter-terrorism; we should continue to press for action on specific agenda items.” This was the advice issued by Ambassador Patterson during the summer of 2008, in the run-up to a visit to the US by the new Pakistani prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani.
Patterson listed all the things that the US chief of staff and the deputy head of the CIA achieved during a recent visit to Islamabad, which included the Pakistani authorities “arresting several Taliban shura members in Quetta” and “initiating an Army operation in North Waziristan.” She also wrote that “we expect they will allow another B-300 surveillance aircraft to operate.”
But the diplomat was also frustrated over all the things that had failed: “The government of Pakistan has not targeted Siraj Haqqani or his network; nor have they arrested Commander Nazir or Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. These militants are responsible for much of the 40 percent increase in cross-border attacks on our troops in Afghanistan this year.” And although President Musharraf had acknowledged that “elements of ISI may be out of control,” he remained “reluctant to replace ISI Director Nadeem Taj,” she wrote.
Shortly after Musharraf’s resignation as president in August 2008, however, the Pakistani Army’s then-head of military operations, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was appointed as the new director-general of the ISI. Pasha is an experienced commander who has conducted numerous operations in the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan. In comparison to Taj, he has a reputation for being a cosmopolitan man who speaks not only English but also German; years ago, Pasha attended a number of courses at the Bundeswehr’s military academy in Hamburg.
The Pakistani government and the army regularly protest against the US use of drones in the tribal areas along the border to Afghanistan. The attacks, they say, violate Pakistani sovereignty and cause an increasing number of civilian deaths. In the dispatches from the US Embassy in Islamabad, however, the Pakistanis are much less harsh in their critique.
ISI head Pasha praised the weapons in comments to members of the Pakistani parliament. “The vast majority of those killed in drone attacks,” he said, “were foreign fighters or Taliban.”