Pakistan and the United States share an interest in denying Islamist extremists access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and preventing rogue Pakistani officials from peddling nuclear technologies. The countries have been working together behind the scenes on this issue since before 9/11. A survey of their efforts, based on publicly available information, suggests substantial progress. The United States must continue to make nuclear security an essential element of its bilateral relationship with Pakistan.
President Barack Obama stated in May that the United States and Pakistan retain “strong military-to-military consultation and cooperation,” but full collaboration is limited in the nuclear arena. The main obstacle is a belief among some Pakistani leaders and the general public that American offers of assistance mask more nefarious motives of espionage or even seizing Pakistan’s arsenal. Media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal report that U.S. Special Forces teams stand ready to forcibly secure weapons stockpiles in the event of an extremist takeover of the Pakistani government do little to assuage these suspicions.
Such insinuations tarnish U.S. credibility and damage its efforts to forge a working partnership with Pakistan and its military establishment as instability mounts in the region. The United States must continue to seek ways to build trust while countering misperceptions.
Experts disagree on the magnitude of risks to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons today in light of reported efforts by Pakistan to address vulnerabilities on its own and U.S. bilateral assistance. Former President Pervez Musharraf initiated an overhaul of Pakistan’s nuclear security processes in 1999. He created the National Command Authority, or NCA, a civilian agency which institutionalized civilian control over the arsenal. A 10-member committee chaired by the president and prime minister oversees the agency, but the Pakistani military’s Strategic Plans Division administers its day-to-day operations, including the budget. This arm of the military also supervises a unit of 10,000 personnel responsible for securing Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure.
But the mere fact that nuclear weapons exist in a country facing significant economic, social, and political problems warrants an abundance of caution. Quiet attempts to build and sustain trust between the United States and Pakistan in the nuclear domain should remain a part of the U.S. strategy for Pakistan as the two countries build on their past bilateral efforts to promote nuclear security.
Details of the joint Pakistani-U.S. bilateral efforts remain classified, but it is possible to develop a partial picture of the cooperation based on publicly available information as reported by the press and knowledgeable experts. Nuclear security cooperation between the United States and Pakistan predates 9/11. In 2000, a “Liaison Committee” of top American and Pakistani scientists met to help Pakistan create secure command-and-control codes for its nuclear arsenal, which would prevent unauthorized users, including potential insider plots by members of the Pakistani military, from accessing weapons or facilities without the passwords.
The 9/11 attacks, however, intensified U.S. concerns about the seizure of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by extremists. The United States reportedly launched a secret $100 million program in 2001 to support more robust cooperation. The program is buried in secret portions of the federal budget and designed by officials from the Departments of Energy and State. Its elements allegedly include:
- Modern physical security technologies. The United States furnished electronic monitoring and surveillance systems, intrusion detectors, and ID systems for Pakistani nuclear facilities; helicopters, night vision goggles, and nuclear detection technology; and physical security reinforcements such as fencing around nuclear facilities. In 2003 rumors began to surface that the United States provided Pakistan with Permissive Action Links, or PALs—specialized combination security locks on nuclear weapons that prevent unauthorized detonations by terrorists or rogue leaders. Pakistan denies these reports and insists instead that it developed its own brand of security locks without external assistance.
- Training. The United States provided a model for a Personnel Reliability Program, an ongoing series of psychological and emotional fitness tests designed to screen nuclear scientists and monitor their trustworthiness, mental stability, and loyalty. The United States also trains Pakistani personnel on the command-and-control systems developed by the “Liaison Committee” in the United States, and provides funding for the construction of a nuclear security training center in Pakistan. The facility has not yet been completed.
- High-level political consultations. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage pressured Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to dismiss intelligence officials with suspected Taliban ties and redeploy warheads to more secure locations. And the “Strategic Program and Development Cell” has met every two to three months to review the security of Pakistan’s arsenal as of February 2004. This probably refers to the Liaison Committee; participants reportedly include General Khalid Kidwai, the Pakistani military leader in charge of the arsenal, and representatives from the National Security Council, the NNSA, the national weapons labs, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the CIA.
It’s also worth noting that during this period Pakistan also began to develop a modern export control regulatory regime with U.S. assistance. It supplements the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration Megaports program at Port Qasim, Karachi, which deployed radiation monitors and imaging equipment monitored by a Pakistani central alarm station. In fiscal years 2003-2006, Pakistan was the second-largest recipient of bilateral export control aid.
The status of the Bush-era program is unclear. In November 2007 officials reportedly discussed a second phase that would provide more equipment, helicopters, and safety devices although some believe the program ended completely in 2007. Its exact fate, however, is unknown after leadership changes in both countries.
In any event, cooperation between the two countries on enhancing the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal appears to continue. There are recent reports that secret talks took place in May 2009 between Energy and State Department officials and their Pakistani counterparts on expanding cooperation. The United States has reportedly continued to provide additional training and detection technology for Pakistani ports, airports, and border crossings. Major initiatives considered in recent talks reportedly include shipment of Pakistani highly enriched uranium fuel to the United States for disposal and a plan to destroy risky radioactive materials. Pakistan, however, denies the talks have occurred. Pakistan has also reportedly requested assistance with redirection programs for retired scientists. The United States was apparently noncommittal.
President Obama has said that “we have confidence that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe.” The United States has a fundamental national security interest in ensuring that this remains the case, and it should seek to sustain its cooperation with Pakistan. Achieving this objective will require the United States to avoid aggressive and well-publicized rhetoric questioning the competence of the Pakistani military to manage its own nuclear assets, and continued behind-the-scenes negotiations with military and civilian leaders in Pakistan to share technology and advice consistent with U.S. law and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.
Andrew J. Grotto is a Senior National Security Analyst at American Progress and Michelle Hammer is an intern with the National Security team.