Over the space of months during 1979-80, the US went from intense efforts to slow down or reverse Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme to turning a blind eye to it in order to get Islamabad’s support following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, according to newly declassified cables and documents.
The documents in a volume of the US state department’s historical series Foreign Relations of the United States 1977-1980 show that throughout 1978 and 1979, there was growing concern among senior officials of the Jimmy Carter administration about Pakistan’s efforts to obtain sensitive equipment and technology needed for reprocessing and enrichment of uranium.
But things changed markedly after Soviet forces rolled into Afghanistan in late December 1979, and officials such as secretary of state Cyrus Vance and defense secretary Harold Brown began adopting a more pragmatic approach in order to ensure Pakistan could become a base for using Mujahideen to take on the Soviet troops.
Before the Soviet invasion, however, the Carter administration mounted considerable pressure on France not to help Pakistan build a reprocessing plant, according to multiple cables and records of conversations. This was done after initial efforts in 1977 to restructure the French reprocessing plant so that it couldn’t produce pure weapons-grade plutonium.
A US Policy Review Committee meeting held in Washington on November 30, 1978, concluded: “It is clear that the Pakistanis continue to look for ways to develop a nuclear explosive capability… A Pakistani explosive capability seems about five years away…” By the following year, some of the declassified cables suggest, some in the US administration and the CIA believed Pakistan could even assemble a device and conduct a test within a few months.
A CIA report from December 5, 1978, included a warning that Pakistan’s efforts to “acquire foreign equipment for a uranium enrichment plant… have been more extensive and sophisticated than previously indicated. Despite the best efforts of nuclear supplier states to thwart these activities, Pakistan may succeed in acquiring the main missing components for a strategically significant gas centrifuge enrichment capability.”
As the concerns grew, the US even decided to work with the UK and France to curtail these activities, according to a cable from the state department dated November 1, 1978.
“The USG intends to bring our concern to the attention of governments of potential supplier countries, including Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Japan, Canada, West Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK…We would like to brief the French first on our plans to approach other capitals in order to bring the GOF up to date on our latest intelligence,” the cable stated.
The cable also reveals that Britain acted to prevent the proposed export of inverters needed by Pakistan to develop a gas centrifuge enrichment facility.
A memorandum dated September 25, 1979, states that the US efforts were mainly geared towards “trying to intercept and freeze the Pakistani nuclear development at a stage where it would be more nearly equivalent with India – the driving force in Pak policy”.
Several cables show top US officials even considered proposals such as approaching India and Pakistan on signing a pact on not using nuclear weapons or agreeing to a “South Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone”.
Multiple cables from this period also show that Pakistan’s military ruler Zia-ul-Haq and foreign minister Agha Shahi repeatedly lied to their American interlocutors about the country’s nuclear programme being completely peaceful.
A cable from the US embassy in Islamabad dated April 10, 1979, states that Zia made a “lengthy and emotional criticism of US attitudes on Pak nuclear program” and said American intelligence was faulty and based on unreliable source.
“He said US has assumed Pakistan is making a bomb and our journalists have dubbed it a ‘Muslim’ bomb. ‘I assure you once again,’ he said, ‘all this is totally wrong. Pakistan is carrying out a research program dedicated to peaceful purposes’.”
Detailing Zia’s conversation with US envoy Arthur Hummel, the cable states that Zia asked, “Who is enriching uranium?” to which Hummel replied: “You are, Mr President, and you have no peaceful use for enriched uranium.” Zia then responded, “You say we are; we say we’re not.” He said Pakistan was carrying out a research programme but “I can assure you Pakistan is not in a position to enrich uranium”.
But once the security situation in Afghanistan worsened and Soviet involvement in that country increased, the US began looking at other options.
A cable from the US embassy dated September 19, 1980, quotes Hummel as saying on the nuclear issue: “While making clear the seriousness with which we regard Pakistan’s attempt to develop a nuclear capability, we should reaffirm our commitment to Pakistan’s security and try to reassure Zia that we are neither opposed to development of nuclear power for peaceful uses nor discriminatory against Pakistan in our non-proliferation policy.”
In a memorandum to president Carter dated September 29, 1980, defense secretary Brown talks about providing military aid to Pakistan and renewing “our earlier decision to turn a blind eye to their nuclear weapons program”.
Perhaps more telling is a record of a conversation between Carter and visiting foreign minister Agha Shahi in Washington on January 12, 1980, with the then president saying: “Our position on nuclear explosives is clear and I hope you will relay our concern to President Zia. Movement on this is not a prerequisite for cooperation, but our long-term relations will be substantially affected by the question of nuclear explosives…The nuclear question, then, is no longer an insurmountable obstacle, but it remains important.”